Experts agree that children need food from all the major food groups to grow properly and stay healthy. Too many carbohydrates, both sugars (for example, from cake, cookies, candies, milk, and other sugary foods and beverages) and savory foods and starches (for example, pretzels and potato chips) can cause tooth decay. How long carbohydrates remain on the teeth is the main culprit that leads to tooth decay.
Tips for selecting and eating foods that are more healthful to your child's teeth:
- Keep lots of fruits and vegetables in your house -- to offer as "healthy snacks" -- instead of carbohydrates. Choose fruits and vegetables that contain a high volume of water, such as pears, melons, celery, and cucumbers. Limit bananas and raisins, as these contain concentrated sugar, or urge your child to brush after these fruits are eaten.
- Serve cheese with lunch or as a snack. Cheese, especially cheddar, Monterey Jack, Swiss, and other aged cheeses help to trigger the flow of saliva, which helps wash food particles away from teeth.
- Avoid sticky, chewy foods. Raisins, dried figs, granola bars, oatmeal or peanut butter cookies, jelly beans, caramel, honey, molasses, and syrup stick to teeth making it difficult for saliva to wash away. If your child consumes these types of products, have him or her brush their teeth immediately after eating.
- Serve sugary treats with meals, not as snacks. If you plan to give your child any sweets, give them as desserts immediately following the meal. There's usually an increased amount of saliva in the mouth around mealtime, making it easier to wash food away from teeth. The mealtime beverage also helps to wash away food particles on teeth.
- Get your children in the habit of eating as few snacks as possible. The frequency of snacking is far more important than the quantity consumed. Time between meals allows saliva to wash away food particles that bacteria would otherwise feast on. Frequent snacking, without brushing immediately afterwards, provides constant fuel to feed bacteria, which leads to plaque development and tooth decay. Try to limit snacks as much as possible and to no more than one or two a day. Brush teeth after consuming the snack, if possible.
- Avoid sugary foods that linger on the teeth. Lollipops, hard candies, cough drops, and mints all contribute to tooth decay because they continuously coat the teeth with sugar.
- Buy foods that are sugar-free or unsweetened. Foods that contain the sugar substitute xylitol may actually help prevent cavities.
- Never put your baby to bed with a bottle filled with milk, formula, juice, or soda. If your baby needs a bottle at bedtime, fill it with plain water.
- Offer your child plain water instead of juice or soda. Juices, sodas, and even milk contain sugar. Water does not harm the teeth and aids in washing away any food particles that may be clinging to teeth.
Include good sources of calcium in your child's diet to build strong teeth. Good sources include milk, broccoli, and yogurt.
- If your child chews gum, encourage him or her to choose xylitol-sweetened or sugar-free gum. Xylitol has been shown to reduce the amount of bacteria in the mouth and the chewing action helps increase the flow of saliva.
- Use fluoride and brush and floss your child's teeth. The best way to prevent tooth decay is to use a fluoride toothpaste every day. The fluoride seeps inside the tooth to reverse early decay. Brush your child's teeth at least twice a day and after each meal or snack if possible. If brushing between meals is not possible, at least rinse the mouth with water several times. Floss your child's teeth at least once a day to help remove particles between teeth and below the gum line. For kids 6 years and up, a fluoride mouthwash also helps prevent tooth decay.
- Be sure to brush your child's teeth after giving him or her medicine. Medicines such as cough syrups contain sugar that bacteria in the mouth use to make acids. These acids can eat away at the enamel -- the protective top layer of the tooth.
- Visit the dentist regularly. Your child should make his or her first visit to the dentist by age 1 or within six months of the first tooth breaking through the gums. Getting regular dental check ups will also help catch any developing dental problems early.