When can you use fluoride toothpaste on toddlers?

Why should very young children not use fluoride toothpaste?

From the time our children start brushing, we teach them to spit out their toothpaste rather than swallow it. But why (aside from the gross-out factor of swallowing a mouthful of toothpaste along with everything they've just brushed off their teeth) is it so important to spit?

Consumed in large quantities, fluoride can have toxic -- in extreme cases, even fatal -- effects on the body. The most common symptoms from an overdose of fluoride are gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. At higher levels, fluoride poisoning can cause weakness, shallow breathing, convulsions and vomiting blood [sources: Crosta; A.D.A.M.].

Of course, swallowing only the amount used for brushing (a pea-sized drop, for children between the ages of 2 and 6) isn't likely to cause such a severe reaction, but consuming just a little too much each day for an extended time comes with its own set of concerns.

If children ingest too much fluoride over a long period while their permanent teeth are forming under the gums, they are at risk of developing dental fluorosis, a permanent discoloration of the tooth enamel [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Dental fluorosis can range from mild, barely noticeable white spots on the permanent teeth to severe dark brown staining and even pitting of the teeth, in which small spots of enamel appear to have been chipped away. Fluorosis is a concern only for children younger than 8, because once the permanent teeth finish developing and break through the gums, they can no longer develop fluorosis [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

While the potential toxic effects of too much fluoride are certainly the scariest to read about, the dental fluorosis caused by long-term overconsumption of fluoride is far more common than acute fluoride poisoning. Fortunately, it's also fairly preventable, once you know it exists. Read on to find out how to protect your toddler's pearly whites.