Written by Dr Simon Muscat
I regularly encounter parents who are shocked when they’re told their child has dental cavities, some of which are so deep that extensive treatment under local or general anesthetic is necessary. To add insult to injury, they insist their child does not consume ‘sweets’.
A high percentage of children, sometimes as young as 3 or 4, suffer from dental decay and its associated complications of pain, abscesses and the need for dental treatment.
Today, dental decay is one of the most common diseases which affects patients from all social classes. Part of the problem is the hidden sugar content of ‘healthy’ snacks and the lack of twice-yearly dental check-ups. Parents often turn up at the dentist with a patient who is already in pain, and sometimes uncooperative in the dental chair, due to their infrequent attendance.
Visits to the dentist are important also to get the child familiar with the procedure and to increase his or her awareness about the importance of dental health.
What we may not realise is that our teeth are under regular attack from acids. These can be acids that the bacteria in our mouths produce when we ‘feed’ them sugar, or acids that are commonly found in fruit juices and fizzy ‘soft’ drinks.
Unfortunately, even dried fruits like raisins have a more concentrated form of fruit sugar that can lead to tooth decay
Sugar, sugar everywhere
We all know the obvious, however it is important to remember that pretty much everything that comes in a carton or packet, is processed and probably contains sugar.
‘No added sugar’ does not mean it’s not already loaded with sugar, and I challenge you to find more than a handful of products on supermarket shelves labelled as ‘sugar-free’. Common snacking culprits are chocolates, cakes, milkshake powders, cereals and cereal bars, wafers, biscuits, fruit juices and re-hydrating/energy drinks.
Unfortunately, even dried fruits like raisins have a more concentrated form of fruit sugar that can lead to tooth decay; they are also very sticky and attach themselves to the teeth for hours.
Avoid placing anything but water in that sippy-cup or beaker; your child’s episodes of sugar intake add up each time they take a sip. If you fill it with ready-made apple or orange juice, you’re bathing their teeth in a cocktail of both sugar and acid. You might as well have given them a cola.
Allowing a child to fall asleep with the milk bottle (lactose in cow’s milk or added sugar in formula milks) in their mouth has also been labelled as harmful. Good habits of brushing one hour before bedtime, and then only consuming water prior to falling asleep will work wonders for prevention.
Is there anything that kids CAN eat?!
No, it’s not ALL doom and gloom. My advice would be for them to ‘snack’ on water, fruit or vegetables in between meals (freshly-made smoothies are good too), and enjoy something sugary as part of their fixed meals.
Some parents mention their child is a fussy eater and they would rather feed them something they like rather than nothing at all. In such situations, parents and their children should be guided toward healthier eating habits with the help of a qualified nutritionist.
Poor oral health in childhood is a good predictor for adult oral health. Apart from harmful eating habits persisting into adulthood, a more negative strain of bacteria seems to get a foothold in that child’s mouth and becomes very difficult to eradicate. There is also an overlap between the ages of 6 and 10 when baby teeth and adult teeth coexist in the mouth, and bacteria from decaying baby teeth will affect their adult neighbors.
The later children are introduced to sugar, the better.
Children look to their parents and immediate family for guidance. In the early years, they are no wiser to the existence of sugar. We introduce them to sugar and make it available. Parents who hold their children back from frequent ‘goodies’ until the age of five are not being cruel, rather, they raise children that tend to prefer carrot sticks and grapes to chocolate and candy. Let’s not forget that recent research has highlighted the harmful effects of frequent sugar intake and processed carbohydrates on our overall health and well-being.
How can we help?
99% of the time, tooth diseases are totally preventable. It’s easier said than done, however it boils down to the following key factors.
1. Good brushing for two minutes with a fluoride toothpaste twice daily. This means that parents should assist their children during brushing until the age of eight years,
2. Enforcing less than three ‘episodes’ of sugar in the mouth per day. This means parents should be aware of what their child is snacking on in-between meals.
3. Frequent dental check-ups . It is suggested that children attend dental check-ups twice a year from the age of 12 months, in order to help prevent serious dental problems and to help children become aware of the importance of dental health as well as familiarizing themselves and building a relationship of trust with their dentist.
About the author:
Dr Simon Muscat is a general dental practitioner with a special interest in surgical and restorative cosmetic dentistry. He qualified in Malta in 2003 and relocated to England in 2005. He settled in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne for 11 years, returning to settle in Malta in 2016.