PlayWell Publications

PlayWell Pediatric Blog

The Age-Old Debate: Is Manual or Electric Better for a Toothbrush?

April 23, 2024

We often get asked whether a manual vs. electronic toothbrush does a better job. The easy answer is that they both “demonstrate safety and efficacy,” i.e. you can do an equally good job with either. The answer for any age group, therefore, technically, is “either / or.” That said, there are instances when I do gently recommend one vs. the other.

Under 6-12 months (pre-dentate): you can use a manual toothbrush or a manual silicone infant brush – this is mostly to stimulate the gingivae, like “scratching an itch.” You can also just use a clean finger, or a clean, damp washcloth to give a little gum massage. While “Milk Tongue” can smell, well, like spoiled milk (and often be confused for thrush), you usually don’t need to do anything special apart from using that damp washcloth, if desired. Between full saliva production around 5 months, solid foods around 6 months, and stimulation of extra salivation with the pain of teething around 7 months (plus or minus), milk tongue is usually no longer a problem.  The name of the game is mostly just getting baby accustomed to playful oral stimulation.

1-3 years old: Still no electronic toothbrushes here. While technically you can, it’s usually going to be experienced as overstimulating and scary. The manual toothbrush – with bristles, no silicone finger brushes – will serve to remove plaque from teeth.

3-7: Technically, 3 is the minimum age for which electric toothbrushes may be recommended. Anytime during this age, electric toothbrushes may be explored, if desired. This is usually when we’re open to liking toothbrushing in general, but also therefore being open to new ways of doing it, especially if it involves a cool character on the toothbrush, cool lights, and brushing teeth “like a big kid” - the way mom and dad (maybe) do. My only concern apart from whether we’re ready and don’t find it overstimulating, is whether we can do a good job, be safe, and keep toothbrushing a cooperative and comfortable experience. Most families brush teeth in the bathroom, standing up, in front of the mirror – all the things that, to me, make toothbrushing the hardest. So many families find kids are wiggly, don’t want to do it, won’t hold still, they can’t see what they’re doing, and feel the need to headlock the kid once in a while. If that is at all happening still, you won’t “shoot your eye out, kid” with the electric, but you’ll definitely find that, like a wet dog shaking, the toothbrush will do a good job at expelling toothpaste, water, and saliva in any and every direction, getting on the mirror and on your face. If you lay down for toothbrushing, everything is more manageable. Either way, if using an electric toothbrush makes you happy, your kid happy, and me happy (we’re safe, and we’re doing a good job getting teeth clean), then do things however you want to do them: laying on the bed, head off the edge with mom or dad brushing your teeth from above and behind like the dentist, with an electric toothbrush? Cool! Electric toothbrush turned off while hanging upside down? Wicked! One-handedly brushing with a manual brush while you hold your kid upside down with the other hand by the ankle? Not recommended… but could be a fun thing to try once.

7 – 10: As we work through the ages where we play coach and transition from doing all the brushing to letting kids do it all by themselves, you can use either tool. The bathroom becomes a good place now – watch what you’re doing in the mirror. See where I go with it, feel how that feels? OK, now do it like that and make sure you can feel it by the gums on those back teeth there like I did. Stand behind, do some hands on / hands off. If and when you introduce the electric toothbrush, the technique is all different. You shouldn’t be making lots of quick scrubbing movements around the mouth – the toothbrush does all that for you. You want to go slooooooow – make sure the toothbrush gets time over every surface and in between every pair of teeth. It’s no magic wand – slow and steady. Kids will tend to swirl the manual or the electric toothbrush all around, flinging and flying around trying to hit every part of the mouth. I say it’s like painting a wall. Did you technically get paint on all 4 quadrants of this wall by painting in 10 seconds of crazy, wack-a-doodle motions? Yes! Did you paint the whole wall? Were you careful in the corners, neatly ensuring overlap between strokes to ensure no space was missed? Especially with the electric, slow and steady wins the race.

10+: By the time we’re brushing solo, I do generally recommend electric - It can be a lot easier to do a good job with the electric, especially in all the hard-to-reach areas like the tongue-side of the bottom front teeth. Once you go electric, and you feel that hygienist-clean tooth feeling, you won’t want to go back. The problem at these ages tends more so to be either “I forgot,” in which case manual vs. electric doesn’t much matter at all, now does it? If we’re not still doing the paint-the-wall-in-10-seconds thing, what I otherwise find with the electric toothbrush is, without supervision, kids can find that they feel like they’re achieving something. The electric toothbrush is moving, isn’t it? It buzzes every 30 seconds and 2 minutes later I’m done! During this time, they’re walking around, looking at things in the room, going to the toilet, switching the toothbrush to the left hand, getting dressed, whatever, all the while the toothbrush has barely left the corner of the mouth it started in, if it has at all. It’s easier to feel like you did something even when you didn’t. Then a manual would be better. But…

Better than any product, any new brush or new tool or new way to spend money which makes you feel like you’ve taken a positive step, the most important thing is, regardless of the tool, is to pay attention to what you’re doing, be mindful, and go slow. I promise, it’s only 2 minutes. When in doubt, and if we’re finding results aren’t what we’d like, there’s lots fuzzy plaque and gingivitis at our dentist visits despite insistence that we’re brushing, I like to recommend we brush with our kids together. Whatever age and stage they’re at, brushing together, even if they’re 12 years old, means you can see they’re doing it, they can see you’re doing it, and you’re both doing it for the same amount of time, and you can make sure they’re being slow and careful just like you.

A kid playing with his toys

Come Smile With US!

The PlayWell Membership Plan has your kiddo covered with the quality pediatric dental care they need and deserve to grow well with bright oral health. Check out our plan perks and give your child the gift of a beaming smile by joining our patient family today!

let's get started