If you have a toddler, hearing the words "chewing gum" may immediately prompt visions of a sticky, tangled mess of hair or a ruined sofa.
Photo credit: Mieke Dalle/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Or perhaps your toddler is already gnawing away, disposing of each piece properly instead of swallowing (even if "disposing" means a pile in a corner of their room). Do you know if he or she is chewing the right kind of gum?

Don't panic. Take a moment to evaluate your child's understanding of some important concepts, and soon you and your youngster can be on your way to a fruit-center-filled future. (Sugar free, of course.) 

What the experts say

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says a guideline for allowing a child to chew gum is to ensure the child is old enough to understand gum should not be swallowed.

A study found that repeatedly swallowing gum can cause health problems including diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, mouth ulcers and dental and jaw problems.

"In fact, a study found that repeatedly swallowing gum can cause health problems including diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, mouth ulcers and dental and jaw problems," the AAP says in an online statement. "It can also cause choking and block the intestines."

What if my child has a disability?

Gum can be for virtually anyone — it might just take longer to develop the skills and understanding needed to enjoy gum safely. Jennifer Bekins, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech language pathologist at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center, recommends parents ask these questions:

  • Does your child understand gum shouldn't be swallowed?
  • Does your child know how to properly dispose of gum once it's been chewed?

"[Understanding these concepts] will vary as it would in any child," Bekins says. "For instance, most of the children I see in first or second grade are able to manage gum, spit out and throw away in the trash. In preschool, I would still worry about choking while swallowing whole. There is a higher risk of choking in younger children as they attempt to swallow the gum whole."

  • Consider your child's skill level with tooth brushing. "Can your child hold toothpaste in his or her mouth and spit into the sink? Then they may be ready for gum," Bekins says.

Now for the good news

If you've cleared the questionnaire portion of preparation and feel ready to unwrap a savory square for your sweetie, here's some good news: "Chewing gum helps encourage the creation of saliva, which is one of the best natural fighters of cavities," says Martin Hogan, DDS, division director, dental medicine, Loyola University Medical Center.

Medical benefits of gum chewing include:

  • Increasing saliva, which helps prevent cavities
  • Increasing attention span
  • Improving memory
  • Reducing stress
  • Maintaining weight
  • Improving digestion

But the type of gum makes a difference. "Choose sugar free gums or lozenges/candy and … gum with xylitol, because it also helps fight cavities naturally," Hogan says. No matter the child, he emphasizes all gum-chewers should avoid heavily sugar-crusted gums (e.g., gumballs).

Check it out!^

Read more about xylitol from Dr. Matt Lawyer of Carothers Parkway General Dentistry.

Dispelling a gum-chewing myth

Some parents of children with disabilities believe gum chewing strengthens the muscles to improve speech development.

In fact, "chewing gum does not help speech development," Bekins says. "Studies show chewing gum increases the amount of bite force — how hard a child bites. However, it does very little to strengthen jaw muscles."

More about kids' teeth

Squeezable fruit: Clever or cavity-causing?
Tooth fairy ideas we love
How much milk does your toddler really need?

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