Childhood Cavities: 5 Ways To Give Your Child A Healthy Smile

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 1:47pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Dental caries, or cavities, are a common childhood problem, affecting approximately 45% of children and adolescents. A cavity forms when bacteria in the mouth mixes with carbohydrates (from sugar or starchy foods) to make acids. These acids eat away at tooth enamel, causing cavities. Frequent teeth brushing and flossing are important for prevention of cavities, but are not the only consideration. Proper nutrition also plays a vital role in the development and maintenance of a healthy mouth.

Nutrition influences cavities

Although genetics may determine whether your child is more or less likely to develop cavities, the food she eats also has a major impact. If your child frequently consumes sugary or starchy foods or drinks between meals (e.g. candy, cookies, snack chips, soft drinks), she is at a greater risk of developing cavities. Does this mean you should eliminate her snacks altogether? No, because children need regular snacks to meet their high energy needs. However, it is important that you choose your child’s snacks wisely to reduce her chances of developing painful cavities.

5 ways to prevent cavities

Here are some suggestions to ensure your child develops a healthy smile.

1.   Start dental hygiene from birth

Good dental health should begin early in life, even before the first tooth appears. Children with a healthy set of teeth chew food more easily and learn to talk more clearly. Clean your baby’s teeth and gums using a soft infant toothbrush or even a clean, wet washcloth with water. Once teeth appear, clean them with a soft, child-sized toothbrush twice a day using a pea-sized dab of children's toothpaste. Opinions vary about the use of fluoride toothpaste in children under two, so consult your physician or dentist before choosing a toothpaste. When your child is two years old, use a fluoride toothpaste, continuing to use only a pea-sized amount until age six. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends visiting the dentist six months after the first tooth begins to come in, and no later than twelve months of age.

2.   Banish the bedtime bottle to avoid childhood caries

Children under three years of age often develop cavities, called early childhood caries (ECC). The primary cause of ECC is prolonged exposure of the teeth to a sweetened liquid (formula, milk, juice, soda, sweetened drinks). This occurs most often when the child is routinely given a bottle in the crib at bedtime and during naps. 

3.   Limit sticky foods to avoid cavities

Sticky snacks such as candy, raisins, granola bars, and fruit snacks take a longer time to dissolve and provide more time for the acid to cause damage to the teeth. If your child eats these foods, make sure she brushes her teeth immediately afterwards.

4.   Save sugars and starches for mealtimes and avoid cavities

Desserts should be eaten with meals. The same goes for starchy foods like crackers, popcorn, bread, and potato chips. Carbohydrates from sugary or starchy foods are more likely to cause cavities if eaten alone. However, if these foods are served with a meal in combination with other non-sugary/starchy foods, they are less likely to cause decay.

5.   Offer nutritious and tooth-friendly snack foods to your children

Snacks should emphasize foods that are low in sugar, are not sticky, and stimulate saliva flow, thereby limiting acid production in the mouth. Good choices include fruits like apples, fresh vegetables, plain yogurt, cheese and milk. The calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D in dairy products are also beneficial to your child’s dental health. In addition, some protein foods such as nuts, hard cheeses, eggs, and meats, are thought to provide cavity protection. Eating these foods in combination with higher-sugar foods lessens the risk for tooth decay. If your school-age child or adolescent eats a high sugar or high starch snack, she may benefit from chewing sugarless gum afterwards.

The benefits of carefully selecting the foods your child consumes go far beyond the prevention of cavities. By taking special care of your child’s oral health, you can protect her beautiful smile and optimize her overall health and nutrition status.

For more information on nutrition to avoid cavities see the following article for TheDietChannel: Oral Health & Nutrition Dietary Tips for Preventing Cavities.