Healthy eating equals healthy teeth for toddlers

Diet plays a critically important role in the health of your child’s teeth. Developing healthy eating habits early in life will help ensure strong and healthy child and adult teeth.

Evidence has shown that good oral health during infancy and the toddler years helps to contribute to better dental health throughout life. It also helps to reduce the risk of dental decay and lower the rates of missing teeth.

Rising decay rates in children have been related to changes in dietary patterns, and increased consumption of sugary, processed foods and drinks. Encouraging healthy eating and drinking habits in toddlers can help children to have healthy teeth for life.

Early Childhood Caries

As soon as your child’s first tooth erupts, they are at risk of dental decay. Decay in babies and toddlers is known as Early Childhood Caries(ECC).

To help prevent ECC, follow the guidelines below:

  • Avoid settling your toddler to sleep with a bottle of milk, sweetened flavoured milk, cordial, soft drink or fruit juice. Bacteria feed on the sugar in these drinks which leads to the formation of plaque and acid on the teeth. This breaks down the protective tooth enamel, causing decay.
  • Offer your toddler a drink of water when they wake overnight and seem thirsty.
  • Stop your toddler’s bottles from the age of one year. Encourage them to drink water and milk from a cup.
  • Wipe your toddler’s gums and teeth just before they go to sleep. This is especially important if they have a breast or bottle feed before settling.
  • Breast and bottle feeding regularly throughout the night once a child is over 12 months can contribute to ECC. Speak with your child health nurse if your toddler is still keen on feeding overnight
  • Avoid giving your baby or toddler frequent snacks; three meals and two snacks per day is generally enough to meet dietary needs.
  • If your toddler is a mouth breather, they may be at greater risk of ECC. Speak with your child health nurse or dentist if you think your toddler may have a dry mouth.
  • Good oral hygiene begins at birth. See the The Australian Dental Association’s information guide on Babies and Toddlers 0-3years for guidelines on cleaning your child’s teeth and gums.

What food contributes to dental decay in toddlers?

Foods that can contribute to dental decay include those high in refined carbohydrates (sugar) such as concentrated fruit snack bars, lollies, muesli bars, sweet biscuits, some breakfast cereals and sugary drinks and juices. this is because decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth turning sugar into energy and producing acid which damages the teeth.Processed foods such as savoury crackers and chips can also have high levels of carbohydrate (sugar). Therefore, it is important to check the nutritional information panel on packaged foods to help work out which foods and drinks have high carbohydrate and sugar levels.

As a general guide, look for food and drink products that contain less than 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams. These types of foods are high risk for causing decay, especially if eaten often and over long periods.

While it is unrealistic to completely cut these foods out, the ADA has some other tips to help minimise dental decay for all ages and stages of life.

The ADA suggests we:

  • Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods, especially those rich in calcium and low in acids and sugars.
  • Enjoy healthy snacks such as cheese and fruit. Some foods help to protect teeth – milk and some cheeses have protective qualities to help prevent dental decay and to strengthen tooth enamel.
  • Eating a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, lean meats and dairy products.
  • Limit sugary snacks such as lollies, fruit and muesli bars, biscuits, dried fruit, cordials, juices and soft drinks.
  • Be mindful that many foods contain high amounts of sugar. Starchy foods (such as bread, pasta, crackers) and milk products consumed frequently, can support the growth of dental plaque (bacteria), which is why we need to brush our toddler’s teeth at least twice each day.

Importantly, a healthy diet needs to be supported by good oral hygiene – brushing and flossing teeth and regular dental check-ups. Daily flossing and brushing greatly reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Start flossing your toddler’s teeth once they have two teeth close together. Try using a flossette device if your toddler protests when you are using floss. These can also help toddlers to become used to flossing.

Did you know? Some medicines contain sugar

Some medicines contain sugar for taste. If your child is prescribed medicine, ask your doctor if this can be sugar free.

Xylitol is a natural sweetener. Foods containing sugar substitutes appear to reduce decay-causing bacteria.

Fluoride is especially good for strengthening young teeth

Fluoride is a natural mineral that strengthens tooth enamel and protects against decay. Most capital cities in Australia add fluoride to the water supply at recommended levels. Your local Council and dentist will be able to tell you if your water supply is fluoridated.

Bottled water is often filtered and does not contain fluoride. Some home water filters also remove fluoride from tap water. Storage-tank, or rain water does not contain fluoride. If your toddler drinks the majority of their water from bottled or filtered water or tanks, then talk to your dentist about your child’s individual fluoride needs. If necessary, the dentist can apply ‘topical’ fluoride to their teeth or recommend fluoride products which may help to reduce the risk of your toddler developing tooth decay.

Did you know? Fruit juice can be harmful too

Soft drinks contribute to tooth decay due to the significant amount of sugar that they contain – a 600ml bottle can contain up to 13 teaspoons of sugar.

Less well known is that these drinks, along with fruit juices, cordials and sports drinks often have high acid levels, and can play a major role in the development of tooth decay. The best drink for your toddler between their meals is water, especially when balanced with a healthy and nutritious diet.

More information

For more information visit Australian Dental Association Baby Teeth

For more information see Baby teething

Reviewed and updated by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, March 2024.

16/09/21 - min Read

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