When are kids old enough to chew gum — and what happens if they swallow it?

Little kids may want bubblegum, but they shouldn't be chewing it until they're around 5, experts say. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz.
Little kids may want bubblegum, but they shouldn't be chewing it until they're around 5, experts say. (Image: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz.

As a parent, you're no doubt familiar with the choking hazards most candies present for babies and small toddlers. Generally speaking, anything that's hard (like a Jolly Rancher), sticky, chewy, gummy or shaped so that it could easily getting lodged in a child's throat is frowned upon. But now your little tyke has discovered the joy of gumball machines, not to mention the pack of Juicy Fruit you keep stashed in your tote bag, adn you're wondering: How much longer do I have to hold out?

Ahead, experts share when and how to let kids get their chew on safely — and put to rest all those old wives' tales your mom told you about swallowing your Bubble Yum.

What's a safe age?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until age 5 to introduce gum to children. This is usually the age when children can chew well, understand the concept of spitting and know not to swallow the gum.

“Introduce a half-stick first and remind your child that this is not food or candy, but something to chew and spit out later,” advises Dr. Denise Scott, a pediatrician and expert with JustAnswer.

Because of their shape and size, gumballs are best avoided until a child is older, as they can still pose a risk of choking.

Teaching your child how to chew gum

You’ll want to physically show your child how to chew gum and explain to them how to do it safely.

“You can demonstrate chewing and spitting out for them, but a parent will also need to remind the child repeatedly," says Scott. "Previously a child swallowed every food that they chewed, so it does not initially come naturally."

When it comes to spitting out the gum, you’ll want to provide your child with some kind of parameters. For example, Scott recommends telling a child to spit out the chewing gum once it’s lost the original flavor. This will provide them with a more concrete time frame on when to stop chewing gum and spit it out.

Pros and cons of kids chewing gum

Clinical studies have demonstrated that chewing sugarless gum for 20 minutes after eating can prevent tooth decay. “This is due to the mechanics of the chewing," pediatric dentist Ashley Lerman, founder of Firstgrin, explains. "The gum helps dislodge and loosen the food that was packed into the back molars during the meal. The chewing process reduces cavities by clearing out the grooves of the back teeth.”

Lerman adds that excessive gum chewing has typically not been shown to damage the teeth unless your teeth are not aligned properly, in which case they may occlude (or meet) in a way that wears them down, which is something you’ll want to ask your child’s dentist about prior to giving your kid gum.

On the other hand, chewing gum can also cause some issues like jaw problems and digestive complications. “Excessive chewing can lead to problems with the joint of the jaw, known as temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD),” Gary Liu, a board-certified pediatric dentist, cautions.

Additionally, the xylitol in sugar-free gum can lead to gas and diarrhea, which can be uncomfortable. Lerman notes that the ingredient is also toxic for dogs, so make sure your child keeps it away from any furry friends.

What happens if your child swallows gum?

This is a fear for many parents, but luckily there usually isn’t a need for concern. “Swallowing gum is not problematic unless a very large amount is swallowed over a short period of time, which could lead to a blockage,” Scott says.

In most cases, the gum will digest, but it will just take longer. The folklore around the topic claims that gum will stay in the digestive tract for up to seven years, but that’s simply not true. It doesn’t stay in your stomach, but rather moves through the digestive tract and is removed through stool.

Which chewing gum is best for kids?

The best chewing gum for kids is one that’s sugar-free and contains xylitol. “Xylitol is a naturally occurring sweetener and can increase the saliva in the mouth and actually help to prevent cavities,” Scott tells Yahoo Life.

She recommends looking for gum that’s endorsed by the ADA. These include the sugar-free varieties of Dentyne Ice, Eclipse, Extra, Ice Breakers, Orbit, Stride and Trident. it's worth noting that kids may not enjoy strong mint flavors.

Liu doesn’t recommend that children regularly chew gum, but if you’re looking for a brand to start with in moderation, he suggests Lotte gum imported from Japan because of the unique flavors and bold packaging, and Epic gum because of the focus on fun flavors and dental care.

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