Dental health of young children is suffering because of sugar

Good oral hygiene is important to general health and wellbeing. However, recent data suggests that tooth decay is rife among young children, some of whom require multiple extractions due to decay.

Child dental problems affect both infants and young children, often presenting as severe forms of tooth decay. While normally found on the upper front teeth, other teeth can also be affected.

The latest National Oral Health Survey shows that children aged between 5-9 had the highest rate of potentially preventable hospitalisations due to dental conditions.

Why is tooth decay a big deal?

Oral health has an enormous impact upon our health and wellbeing. For children, the consequences can be serious. Tooth decay can cause pain, anxiety, difficulties when eating, and in its advanced stages, may result in chronic infection.

Tooth decay is a frequent cause of absence from school and can impact children’s overall learning and performance. It’s also associated with adverse growth patterns and under-nutrition. The removal of baby teeth can also cause crowding problems when adult teeth come through.

While everyone is at risk of decay, children and adolescents are most vulnerable, with the negative health effects of tooth decay increasing during their development.

Why so much decay?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), consumption of free sugars is the main contributor to tooth decay in children, young people and adults.

Free sugars are found in sugar-sweetened beverages including fruit-based and milk-based sweetened drinks, soft drinks and 100% fruit juices. Free sugars are also found in confectionery, cakes, biscuits, muesli bars, sweetened cereals, sweet desserts, sucrose, honey, syrups and preserves.

The WHO recommends that free sugars make up no more than 10 percent of total energy intake. A reduction of 5 percent of total energy intake (6 teaspoons per day) would provide further benefits. However, the latest Australian Health Survey indicates that almost 75 percent of children aged 9–18 exceed recommended intake of free sugars.

How does sugar affect the teeth?

Whenever you eat or drink anything containing sugar, bacteria inside your mouth work to break it down. During this process the bacteria produce acid that destroys tooth enamel. Over time, this leads to tooth decay. Because the enamel on baby teeth is softer and thinner than on adult teeth, they decay easily and quickly.

Decay is more likely to occur in infants or toddlers who:

  • fall asleep sucking a bottle filled with a sugary liquid or a dummy dipped in a sugary substance
  • on-demand breastfeed for more than 12 months
  • have poor oral hygiene
  • snack a lot and consume foods high in sugar.

What can we do?

Qualified nutritionist, Jodie Woodward says children should limit their intake of food and drinks containing added sugars. Instead, they should enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day—with plenty of vegetables of different types and colours.

When it comes to lunchboxes and snacks (where many hidden sugars lurk), Woodward says whole foods are best.

“Parents sometimes feel that their children need a ‘treat’ in their lunchbox and pack things like chips, sugary biscuits or fruit juices every day when these things aren’t really necessary,” she says.

“A lot of discretionary foods come pre-packaged making it easy to give to children when you’re in a hurry, or to throw them into a lunchbox for school. Having a bento-style or sectioned lunch box can make it easier and faster to pack nutritious foods for snacks or lunch and makes including whole foods more convenient.”

Woodward offers the following suggestions for children’s lunchboxes:

  • wholegrain foods – wholemeal or multigrain sandwiches, wraps, wholegrain crackers
  • fruit – whole or cut up
  • vegetables – carrot or cucumber sticks, cherry tomatoes, plain popcorn
  • protein foods such as boiled eggs, meat or its alternatives
  • dairy – cheese, plain yoghurt.

Tips for taking care of children’s teeth

As well as focusing on healthy foods and reducing sugar in the diet, the Australian Dental Association (ADA) says parents should start caring for their child’s teeth when they’re a baby and throughout their toddler years. This will help the child understand what’s involved in good dental hygiene. Parents should also assist with and supervise tooth-brushing and flossing.

The ADA also advises regular dental check-ups for children either at the age of 12 months (at the latest), or within six months of the first tooth appearing.