When do kids learn to spit — and why is it important that they do? Experts weigh in

It takes years for kids to figure out how to spit — but it's an important skill. (Photo: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz)
It takes years for kids to figure out how to spit — but it's an important skill. (Photo: Getty; illustrated by Nathalie Cruz)

There will no doubt come a time when your child spits more than you'd like (especially when their target is a sibling and not, say, the bathroom sink). But parents of young children may not realize that spitting is a skill that can take years for kids to develop, and can affect everyday activities like brushing teeth and eating food.

“Spitting is a very complex action involving the muscles of the mouth, tongue, exhalation of air from the lungs and a mental awareness of why and when to spit appropriately,” explains Dr. Gary Liu, a board-certified pediatric dentist. “Children develop and grow at different paces and timelines, so learning to spit is different between different children.”

Liu says that most of the kids in his practice start to spit around the age of 3 or 4, though some begin as young as 2.

“At this age, they are gaining more skill in their sensory motor functions and can actually control their bodily movements more and more,” he tells Yahoo Life. “They are also understanding why we need to spit and when to do it appropriately.”

Regardless of the age, it’s an important skill for children to develop and one that needs to be practiced.

Why is spitting important?

When it comes to having kids brush their teeth, spitting is important to prevent swallowing toothpaste, especially if it contains fluoride. Bear in mind that your kiddo has probably swallowed toothpaste before (and maybe still does to some extent). Although that’s generally not worrisome, it’s still a behavior you’ll want to curb before it becomes a habit.

“If fluoride toothpaste is swallowed in small quantities, there are no effects on the body,” Liu says. “However, if a large amount is swallowed in a short period of time, one can expect symptoms [including] stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, abnormal taste, drooling, headaches, tremors, weakness or cardiac arrest in extreme cases.” It would be considered a large amount if a young child swallowed an entire tube of toothpaste.

For children under age 3, Liu recommends using a rice grain-sized smear of fluoride toothpaste; those aged 3 and up can use a pea-sized dollop.

Outside of brushing teeth, Dr. Denise Scott, a pediatrician and expert with JustAnswer, notes that spitting is also important at mealtimes. The ability to spit comes in handy when eating something that tastes bad, consuming something too hot or figuring out that something is simply not edible.

How do I get my child to spit?

As with many things, children learn by example. Showing your kids how to spit is one of the best ways to instill it in them.

“Do it together over the bathroom sink. Even consider plopping a bit of toothpaste in the sink as a target to aim for — or you can try hitting the drain,” advises pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, founder and chief executive officer of Happiest Baby.

Additionally, you can start small by introducing other ways to not swallow. Scott recommends initially starting by having the child take a small sip of water. Instead of swallowing it, have them open their mouth to let the water run out. In this way, they can lean over the sink and let the water just dribble out, which promotes the idea of not swallowing.

You can also make it a bit more fun by doing “target practice” or having them aim for something that is father and farther away to get the idea of force, Scott suggests.

Where should my kid spit?

This depends on the situation, but common places include the bathroom sink, toilet, garbage can and so on. If it’s an emergency then spitting anywhere is appropriate, but for the most part it’s something that’s usually done in private.

After learning how to spit, some kids take this new skill and use it outside of the appropriate context. For example, if a child gets frustrated they may begin to spit to express their anger. It’s important to make it clear that spitting is not a communication device or a way to express their feelings, and should only be used when brushing their teeth or eating.

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