Are they toothbrushes, or are they toys? And are some really better than others?
With more choices than ever in the realm of kids' toothbrushes, selecting the right one is easier -- and harder -- than ever.
Could it be the Incredible Hulk? He glows in the dark and is available with three different brushing heads. Or maybe it's Flexaroo, which has a kangaroo with a baby joey fashioned in the handle. Brushes come bedecked with cartoon characters on the handles or packaged with tiny toy figurines.
A series of Sportsbrushes sport soccer balls, footballs and baseballs at the end of their handles, or even cheerleaders, baseball players and football players built right into the grip.
One of the newest items is the Reach Powerbrush, which promoters say "combines the fun of a toy with proven plaque-busting performance." The battery-powered brush vibrates at 7,000 beats a minute, tickling kids' teeth and, with any luck, encouraging them to brush more frequently and longer.
There are even gimmicks to encourage kids to floss, such as Wild String, in electric blue with a "Cherry Berry" flavor, and Wild Flossers, which maker Johnson & Johnson describes as "single-use floss applicators in colorful dinosaur shapes."
Do all the bells and whistles really help kids brush better and take better care of their teeth?
The answer is a qualified yes. In a survey, 19 of 20 parents said that giving children a toothbrush designed for them motivates their children to brush their teeth, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists. The academy unofficially recommends "whatever works."
"Cartoon characters, attractive colors and battery operation may be exciting features for some children," notes Karen Fox, communications coordinator for the academy. "They are not necessary. However, they may motivate children to brush regularly."
The important features to a kid's toothbrush are simple: bristle size and softness. "Basically, the most important thing is that the toothbrush be the right size, that it has a head small enough to fit in the child's mouth," says Sherry Williams, office manager for Dr. Bruce Weiner, a pediatric dentist in Fort Worth, Texas.
"Children's toothbrushes should have soft bristles and be replaced frequently," Williams says. "Younger children tend to chew on them, so they wear out quickly."
For young children, Weiner also recommends keeping two toothbrushes in use, one for the child and one for the parent so that parent and child can take turns brushing the child's teeth or the parent can follow up and make sure the child didn't miss anything.
"Some children's brushes have a longer handle with a smaller head. You have to look for them, but they work best for parents helping small children to brush," Williams says.
She recommends that the parent stand behind the child to brace the child's head and to give a little more control as the adult reaches over and around the child to help with the brushing.
"Until they can tie their own shoes, they don't have the dexterity to brush their own teeth," says Chris Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Dental Society.
"There are a lot of products out there geared for really small kids," Smith said . "We don't advocate any of them. Our only position is that parents should be supervising and/or brushing up to the age of 6, 7 or 8, depending on the dexterity of the child."
Smith also warns against using too much toothpaste.
"Kids just haven't developed the gag reflex they need to keep from swallowing toothpaste. They can develop fluorosis -- flaking white spots on the teeth -- from swallowing too much fluoride," he notes.
Tips for tooth care
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentists offers these tips for parents of tots:
* Children should have their own toothbrushes as soon as they have teeth.
* The best brushes for children have soft, round-ended (polished) bristles that clean teeth but are gentle on the gums.
* Children can play with the brush and chew on it, but parents are responsible for thoroughly brushing the child's teeth until the child has the manual dexterity required to accomplish this task (usually around age 8).
* Your child's teeth should be brushed at least twice a day: after breakfast and before bedtime.
* Replace your child's toothbrush every three to four months, after illness or when the bristles become worn or frayed.
* Start flossing when any two teeth touch.