Girl and boy at age to brush their teeth alone share bathroom while brushing.

Have you ever seen a child in the grocery store with their shoes on the wrong feet and shirt on backward?   Chances are that they insisted on getting dressed “all by themselves.” Kids love to assert their “big kid” status around 4 years of age, so it’s not uncommon for battles around brushing teeth to start at this age.  But at what age should kids brush their own teeth really?

No one-size answer fits all kids, but here are 4 questions to help you decide.

1. Can they tie their own shoes?

Brushing your teeth, believe it or not, takes significant fine motor control.  If you think about it, in order to brush effectively, you need to be able to grip the toothbrush, place it on the teeth at different angles, apply the right amount of pressure, and control the brushing movement.

Phew!  That’s a lot for a child’s mind and muscles to coordinate effectively!  One way to see if your child has reached this level of fine motor control is to consider how well they can tie their own shoes.  The process of holding the laces while manipulating them in a precise pattern is a good sign that they are on their way to brushing solo! Likewise, if your child can write their name clearly and easily, they may have the necessary fine motor control needed. If, however, your child finds it difficult to tie their shoes and/or write their name clearly, you’re better off still brushing for them.

2. How long can they really stay focused on a task?

Children are supposed to brush their teeth twice a day for two minutes each time.  Your child may play with Legos for hours on end, but they may struggle to pay attention to a two-minute task that seems boring or unfun to them after the novelty wears off.  So how can you tell if your child will last the full two minutes, twice a day?

For a child in school, the first step is to ask his or her teacher.  If the teacher reports that your child needs constant reminders and close supervision to remain on task, then chances are they are not quite ready to brush their teeth alone yet.  Likewise, watch your child’s attention span at home. Do they finish setting the table when asked, for example, or do they place a few plates and then run off when they remember they wanted to put a roof on their Lego house?   If they frequently get distracted from completing age-appropriate chores, then they probably can’t be trusted yet to brush unsupervised.

3. How well do they follow directions?

You don’t just want your child to brush their teeth, you want them to brush their teeth properly and thoroughly. In order to do so, they will need to follow instructions.  For instance, they will need to make sure they brush all their teeth and surfaces, as well as apply the right pressure in the correct location. Otherwise, plaque and eventually tartar can build up in unbrushed spots.  Furthermore, brushing too hard can weaken their enamel. Finally, they will need to understand and follow directions for the amount of toothpaste to use, to avoid swallowing too much.

Again, asking your child’s teacher will help you determine how well they can follow directions.  Similarly, you can observe them at home. Before you turn over the brushing to your child, make sure that you see evidence that they can complete a task as directd before moving on to the next idea that crosses their mind.

4. What types of snacks do they regularly eat?

DIfferent snacks can affect teeth differently. If your child eats a lot of starchy snacks like those little orange crackers shaped like fish, sticky gummy “fruit” snacks, or citrus fruits and berries, you may want to delay letting your child brush their teeth alone until you are certain they will do an excellent job. Why?  These types of snacks are more likely to cause cavities if not brushed away properly than other snack options are. On the other hand, if your child is choosing healthy snack ideas, they will have an easier job keeping their teeth clean.

If your answer to even one of the questions above causes you to pause, maybe your child just isn’t ready yet.

Don’t worry. You can help them move closer to that goal. Consider these techniques to help your child develop some of the skills needed to brush their teeth alone.

  • Use a timer.

They will be more likely to brush for the full two minutes if they have an easy way to know if they are meeting the goal! Some parents like to buy little hourglass timers, while others just set two minutes on their phone.  Younger kids like a fun brushing companion that times them, like this brushing beary by Gund.  

  • Play monkey-see-monkey-do.

Turn toothbrushing time into natural teaching time by brushing alongside them.  This approach will let you play a version of monkey-see-monkey-do, or follow the leader.  Have your child watch and mimic where you brush and how long you brush in each spot. Eventually, as you’re more confident they have the hang of it, let them take a turn being the leader!  This will give you a chance, too, to see just how ready they are to fly solo.

  • Get them a toothbrush app.

Yep, you read that right.  Even toothbrushes come with apps today!  This information is good news for parents.  The children’s Sonicare toothbrush with brushing app helps teach children to brush all teeth, apply the right pressure, and keep brushing for the full two minutes.  Many parents report that kids respond better to the app telling them they’re missing a spot than they do to Mom or Dad!

  • Try a product like Plaque HD Toothpaste.

Seeing is believing for most of us, and kids are no different. The use of a special

A plaque-identifying product, like Plaque HD Toothpaste, helps kids literally see where they missed.  Kids simply brush with this paste like any other toothpaste, and its special ingredients dye any plaque on their teeth.  Kids will learn exactly what it takes to keep brushing until all the dyed plaque is gone!

So, when are most kids ready to brush their teeth all on their own?

Okay, so we still haven’t really answered your question.  That’s because each child is different. That’s why we generally recommend that kids still have adult supervision until age 8 or 9 years of age.  Of course, your dentist will provide valuable feedback, too. They will be able to help you determine at regular dental checkups if your child is brushing adequately, or if more help is needed.

This blog shares the thoughts of two pediatric dentists in Northeast Ohio:  Dr. Laura Adelman and Dr. Rachel Rosen.  They share this information for general discussion only and is not medical advice.

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