Preventing tooth decay in toddlers - tips for parents

Child eating ice cream Image copyright Thinkstock

A survey by Public Health England has revealed that one in 10 three-year-olds has tooth decay. Toddlers had an average of three teeth that were decayed, missing or filled. What can parents do to reduce the risks?

Avoid sugary drinks and snacks

Tooth decay is caused by consuming too many sugary foods and drinks too often, says Public Health England.

"Unless this lifestyle issue is addressed, there is a much higher risk of further tooth decay in permanent adult teeth and throughout later life," it warns.

Try to keep foods and drinks containing sugar to mealtimes only, says the British Nutrition Foundation.

"The more often your toddler has sugary foods or drinks, the more likely they are to get tooth decay (dentists recommend that children should have sugar-containing foods and drinks no more than four times a day)."

It says foods containing sugar, including sweets, jam, cakes, biscuits, puddings and ice-cream, should not be given too often and should be kept to mealtimes only.

"Dried fruit can also be damaging to teeth so again try to give it at mealtimes rather than inbetween meals."

And NHS Choices suggests offering snacks such as fruit and raw vegetables, including tangerines, bananas, pieces of cucumber or carrot sticks. Other good snacks include toast, rice cakes and plain popcorn, it says.

Give water and milk

"Sugary fruit juice drinks aimed at very young children are simply not necessary and should be avoided," says Mel Wakeman, nutrition expert at Birmingham City University. "Water and milk for the under-threes are the best choice."

Public Health England says sugary drinks should be avoided.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Give healthy snacks such as tangerines

"Breast-feeding provides the best nutrition for babies, and the best drinks for young children aged one to two are full-fat milk and water and from two years old, semi-skimmed milk and water as long as they are a good eater."

Do not add sugar to weaning foods or drinks, the health body adds.

Move children from bottles to cups from the age of one

Drinking sugary drinks from bottles and sippy-cups further increases the damage caused, particularly to the front teeth.

Public Health England says parents should aim to introduce drinking from a free-flow cup from six months of age and stop feeding from a bottle from 12 months of age.

"Ideally children should be encouraged to move from a bottle to a cup from the age of one but many children can find this transition difficult (as do parents) because the bottle is often a great source of comfort and less messy," says Mel Wakeman. "Teaching a child to use a straw can also help."

Brush teeth twice a day

Thorough brushing for two minutes, twice a day, once before bed, will help to prevent tooth decay, says the British Nutrition Foundation.

Advice from Public Health England is to:

  • Start brushing children's teeth as soon as the first tooth appears and supervise their tooth brushing until they are seven or eight years old. Brush children's teeth twice daily, including just before bed, using a fluoride toothpaste
  • From the age of three, use only a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste and for younger children just a smear

Use only sugar-free medicines if possible

NHS Choices advises parents to always ask if a sugar-free medicine is available and remind their doctor about this if they are being given a prescription for their child.

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