Young kids with healthy teeth have more than just beautiful smiles. Baby teeth help children speak and chew, while holding a place in the jaw for the permanent teeth that are still hiding under the gums. But, "poor oral health [at any age] can impact general health," says Lisa Harper Mallonee, MPH, RD, LD, registered dietitian, registered dental hygienist and associate professor at Texas A&M Baylor College of Dentistry.
It's never too soon to start caring for your children's teeth. Before the first tooth even erupts, Malloonee says, "You really should start swabbing the mouth after feedings with a soft cloth." Beginning a few days after birth, wipe the gums with a soft baby washcloth to remove plaque that can cause decay in erupting teeth. Dental caries, or tooth decay, are little holes in the teeth caused by bacteria in the mouth, which thrive on the sugars in our diet and produce acids that attack the tooth. Dental caries are on the rise among children, especially between the ages of 2 and 11 years old. Fortunately, good oral hygiene and a healthy diet can prevent tooth and gum problems throughout life.
"Avoid putting babies to bed with a bottle," says Angela Lemond, RDN, CSP, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "It's common for babies and toddlers to fall asleep while drinking." When this happens, breast milk or formula sits on teeth and gums for long periods, providing an environment that tooth-decay-causing bacteria love.
As children get older and start eating a greater variety of foods, it's important to pay attention to their consumption of sweets and sticky foods, Lemond says. Frequently eating the following foods increases the risk of developing dental caries:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, and sweetened teas and coffee, especially if sipped over a long period of time
- Sticky foods like caramels, raisins and dried apricots, particularly when eaten alone
- Lollipops and other hard candies that dissolve slowly
- Desserts like cookies, cakes and brownies
- Sugar, including brown sugar, honey, molasses and agave nectar
Grazing or snacking frequently throughout the day also increases the risk of caries. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that you allow at least two hours between snacks and meals.
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables helps protect teeth by stimulating the production of saliva, which cleanses the mouth and and makes it less acidic. Chewing sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after meals and snacks also can help prevent tooth decay.
Drinking water with food — and after a meal — helps eliminate bacteria and reduce acid production. And, if your water is fluoridated, you and your family are getting extra protection. "Fluoride is a mineral that helps resist tooth decay by decreasing acid levels in the mouth and even aiding in the repair process of early decay," Lemond says.
Approximately three-quarters of Americans receive fluoridated water through their community water system, but some bottled waters don’t contain fluoride, she says. If you’re not consuming water with fluoride, talk to your dentist about other ways to get it, including topical fluoride treatments at your dentist’s office.
A good diet is critical for the health of the mouth and staying healthy, but it won’t make up for poor dental hygiene. Continue to see your dentist for checkups and cleanings, and make sure to brush and floss regularly.