Have you ever heard any of the following quotes regarding the age that kids should start brushing their teeth by themselves?
- “My daughter could brush all by herself when she turned two years old!”
- “Kids can brush alone when they can cut through a thick New York strip steak without any help.”
- “They can brush alone when they are old enough to color in a coloring book and stay inside the lines.”
- “They can be in charge of their own teeth when they are old enough to tie their shoes.”
- “They’ll be able to brush by themselves when they can write in cursive.”
- “They can brush their teeth alone when they’re old enough to hit a moving target 20 feet away with a paintball gun while standing on one leg.”
I might have made up that last one, but as you can see there’s a lot of confusion about the exact age at which a child can brush their own teeth and do a good enough job.
So when exactly are kids really old enough to brush their teeth all by themselves? The answer really depends on a couple of other questions which we’ll go over first.
Are Younger Children Worse at Brushing Their Teeth?
What if you could videotape people of different ages brushing their teeth and figure out at what age kids finally “get it” enough to remove the slimy layer of plaque from their teeth?
Two researchers decided to do just that. They recorded a group of 5 year-olds, 11 year-olds, and 18-22 year-olds to see exactly how much plaque they removed when they brushed. Here’s what they found:
- 5 year-olds only brushed 25% of the surfaces of their teeth
- 11 year-olds only brushed 50% of the surfaces of their teeth
- 18-22 year-olds brushed 67% of the surfaces of their teeth
As you can see, as people get older, they appear to be able to clean their teeth better. Interestingly, only developmental age has been shown to be associated with how well people brush their teeth. The older they are developmentally, the better they brush. The textbook Dentistry for the Adolescent and Child by McDonald & Avery states, “Although both chronologic and developmental ages were found to be predictors of plaque removal ability, only developmental age demonstrated statistically significant predictive power.”
As children get older, they develop better dexterity and hand-eye coordination. If we strictly went by the information in the study above, we probably wouldn’t even trust 18 year olds to brush their teeth by themselves! Maybe, brushing has more to do with learning the right brushing technique rather than getting older.
For example, what if someone tried to teach the 5 year-old to brush? Wouldn’t they be able to brush by themselves if they knew what they needed to do?
Can Younger Children Be Taught to Brush Their Teeth Better?
Recently, a group of researchers tested some new technology geared at helping small children learn how to brush their teeth better. They created a technology known as Ubicomp that uses computers to help children learn how to brush their teeth utilizing the Playful Toothbrush. Here’s what they found:
“After using the Playful Toothbrush for five consecutive days, kindergarten children exhibited significant improvement in effectiveness of teeth cleaning, increased number of brushing strokes, longer brushing time and more thorough brushing coverage in teeth areas.”
You can read a PDF file of the complete study to learn more about the technology used and how it improved the kindergarteners’ brushing skills.
So At What Age Can Kids Brush Their Own Teeth?
Ultimately, there isn’t one answer that will cover every child. Each child is different. Of the three pediatric dentistry textbooks I read while researching for this article, I found that two of them glossed over this question, which demonstrated to me that it is a difficult question to answer. The textbook Dentistry for the Adolescent and Child by McDonald & Avery was the only one that alluded to an age when kids can brush their own teeth. The authors state:
“Although children in the preschool age range begin to demonstrate significant improvements in their ability to manipulate the toothbrush, it is still the responsibility of the parent to be the primary provider of oral hygiene procedures. All too often, parents of these children feel that the child has adequately achieved the skills necessary to clean the teeth. It is important to stress to the parents that they must continue to brush their child’s teeth.”
They believe that children 3-6 years old still lack the fundamental skills necessary to brush their own teeth. In the next section dealing with children ages 6 to 12, they state:
“The 6- to 12-year stage is marked by acceptance of increasing responsibilities by the children. The need to assume responsibility for homework and household chores tends to occur during this time. In addition, the child can begin to assume more responsibility for oral hygiene. Parental involvement is still needed. However, instead of performing the oral hygiene, parents can switch to active supervision. By the second half of this stage, most children can provide their basic oral hygiene (brushing and flossing). Parents may find they only need to brush or floss their child’s teeth in certain difficult-to-reach areas of the mouth or if there is a compliance problem. Parents do need to actively inspect their child’s teeth for cleanliness on a regular basis.”
The magic age at which kids can brush their own teeth seems to be sometime between the ages of 6 and 9.
Since every child is different, you will need to individually figure out when your child is ready to begin brushing without any help. A good way to do this is to use plaque disclosing tablets or solutions. These plaque disclosing agents turn the plaque on your child’s teeth a different color so that it is easy to visualize and remove. As long as your children are removing almost all o the color-stained plaque from their teeth, they are able to brush by themselves.
I currently have very young children who are eager to do things independently. Rather than letting toothbrushing become a battle every night before bed, I have the following deal with my kids: They get to brush first and then I tell them I’m going to “check to see if they got everything clean” as I help them finish up. My wife and I plan to continue doing this for a few more years. Once they are a little bit older we will likely start using plaque disclosing tablets more regularly. When we begin to notice that they are removing much of their plaque independently then we will transition to letting them brush by themselves.
Do you have any questions or comments about the age when a child can begin brushing their own teeth? Please join in the discussion by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear about what you’ve done to help your child brush all alone, at what age you got your child to brush, and if they ended up getting any cavities after they took over their oral hygiene routine.
Thanks for reading!