when should a child brush their own teeth

When children are very young, there are many basic things that parents have to do for them because they are not yet capable of doing them alone. Tasks like eating, showering, or even using the potty require the help of an adult.

However, in these examples it is clear when the child no longer needs the assistance of an adult. When they stop making a huge mess you can safely assume that they’ve got the basics down.

But one question that has many parents stumped is when they should let a child brush their own teeth. This is a question that is difficult to answer because at first glance it may seem like a child is quite capable of brushing by themselves.

Brushing Proficiency in Children

How can you tell if your kid is doing a good job? Parents see their kids holding the toothbrush, they see scrubbing and toothpaste foam. They see their child spitting out the foam instead of swallowing both it and the brush, and they think, “Great! My child can brush their teeth all on their own. My job here is done!” On the surface, it seems like all is going well.

Unfortunately, that’s most likely not the case. A study has shown that five-year olds, on average, brush only 25% of the surfaces of their teeth. Kids more than twice that age, specifically 11-year olds, still only brush approximately 50% of the surfaces of their teeth.

This next part no longer concerns children but is still quite interesting. The oldest age group in the study, 18 to 22-year old young adults, tend to brush approximately 67% of their teeth’s surfaces. Even adults twice their age only showed slight improvements over the children in the study, despite having significantly more brushing experience. What gives?

Why Are Children So Bad at Brushing Teeth?

The results from the study are quite shocking in all age brackets. All the participants did poor jobs for various reasons. However, it does suggest that with age comes improved fine motor skills which is why the older participants did better than the younger ones.

Insufficient Dexterity

Children who are five-years old or younger have difficulty even holding their toothbrush properly. In addition, they lack the hand-eye coordination to quickly and efficiently maneuver the brush around their mouth to reach all the surfaces of their teeth.

At this stage, you should supervise each of your child’s brushing sessions. Place your hand over theirs. Gently guide their movements so they can get an idea of how to properly brush. As they get a bit older, let them brush on their own, but you should do the finishing touches to ensure everything is nice and clean.

A good point of comparison for their brushing progress is how well your child can tie their own shoelaces. If they are dextrous enough to tie a bow knot on their own, then they may also be dextrous enough to brush without adult supervision.

Lack of Awareness

Even for 11-year olds, their brushing effectiveness is quite low at only 50% of their teeth surfaces brushed. Why might that be the case if their fine motor skills are starting to become much more developed? At this age, children should be fully capable of brushing by themselves yet the results from the study is worrisome.

It is believed that the participants in the two older age brackets are capable of brushing more effectively, but their poor result may be due to a lack of awareness. Some areas are tricky to clean, such as behind each tooth or the large teeth in the very back known as the molars.

Children may also have a faulty brushing routine that they memorized when they first started brushing which is causing them to focus their cleaning efforts on certain areas of their teeth while neglecting others.

Furthermore, there are also the spaces between each tooth where plaque and food debris can accumulate. These spaces can only be cleaned by flossing. Flossing is an important part of oral hygiene and should also be done everyday just like brushing.

As a parent, during your supervision you should also point out to your child areas they need to focus on. If you notice they never brush behind their teeth, or spend very little time cleaning their molars, either remind them or do it for them if they are still too young and struggling to reach those areas themselves.

Lack of Responsibility

Young children may not understand the importance of brushing and therefore treat it lightly. Concepts like bacteria, plaque, and gum disease are foreign to them, and they will probably forget about it because they are too busy thinking about playing with their toys.

Even as they get older, they may ignore it because of laziness or a general dislike for oral hygiene. After all, brushing and flossing seem like they are optional for young people when their teeth are still nice and healthy. They do not realize that continuing down this path will lead to cavities, swollen gums, and eventually tooth loss.

When Should I Let My Child Brush Unsupervised?

There isn’t an arbitrary age by which your child will suddenly perfect their brushing technique and no longer need your assistance. Each child develops at different rates. The two major concerns that you should have are:

  1. Making sure your child does not swallow the toothpaste or foam, which contain chemicals that are harmful if ingested.
  2. Whether or not your child has sufficient hand-eye coordination to do an effective job brushing a large percentage of their teeth’s surfaces.

Children between the ages of 8 to 10 years old should be around the age where they are physically capable of brushing with minimal guidance. However, you should still supervise them to ensure they are doing a thorough job.

Ensuring a Thorough Clean

You can know for sure how well your child is brushing and flossing with the help of dental plaque disclosing tablets. The purpose of these tablets is to reveal all the plaque still present on your child’s teeth. This is an easy way for you to see how clean their teeth really are.

To apply, first instruct your child to chew the tablet until it mixes with their saliva. Do not swallow this mixture! Tell your child to use their tongue to spread the pink mixture until it completely covers the surface of the teeth. Spit it out once the teeth have been properly coated.

What you should have left over is pink residue where all the plaque is residing. Your job is to brush off the pink areas because that is plaque that has not yet been brushed off. Don’t worry about the teeth, toothbrush or sink getting stained, because it will wash right off.

If your child has done an excellent job brushing their teeth, then there should be minimal plaque visibly remaining. Then you can rest assured that your child can capably brush their own teeth.