4 habits that can increase the risk of dental cavities in children
There are certain habits that may increase the risk of your child getting dental cavities. Here are just some things that some parents or caregivers are doing but may not realise the effect of them on increasing the risk of dental decay (cavities) in their child.
1. Sharing utensils/food
In theory, bacteria can be passed on from one individual to another via saliva. There is a fair amount of scientific evidence that decay-causing bacteria can be transmitted from one individual to another. However, before you scrutinize every individual around your child for dental decay, let me briefly explain the transmission and infectivity process. The most vulnerable groups to bacterial colonization are the young infants and toddlers because at this stage, the child may not have developed a stable group of bacterial environment in the mouth (yes, your mouth is filled with different bacteria types living in an ecosystem). As the child gets older, the risk of being successfully infected by the bacteria decreases as the child’s own bacterial environment would be able to withstand the “invasion” from the “new” bacteria. Therefore, if the child is young and susceptible, colonization of the decay-causing bacteria may start occurring if he/she is exposed to the bacteria. Susceptibility to dental decay is a multifactorial occurrence…remember that dental decay requires a few factors to be present before it can happen and progress (read this post). In view of this, the general advice is to avoid sharing of eating utensils or food between adults and children to reduce the chance of transmitting bacteria from the adult to the child. Even older siblings who have dental decay are discouraged from sharing food or drinks with their younger siblings. You must be thinking then how old would be considered safe for sharing? Unfortunately, I don’t have a definite answer to that. To be safe, avoiding sharing of utensils and food as much as possible.
2. Hidden sugars in “health foods” (gummy vitamins, dried fruits, juices)
We know that eating fruits and vegetables is a good thing, especially if they are in their freshest form…unprocessed. A whole lot of chemicals from preservatives to sugar to salt etc are added during the processing of food. These additives make processed fruits and vegetables less nutritious. While fresh fruits contain sugar, dried fruits contain a lot more sugar per fruit compared to fresh ones. Dried fruits are not good for the teeth because not only are they super sweet, they are also sticky. Food remnants that stay around in the mouth provide a good source of nutrients for the decay-causing bacteria. It’s the same problem for vitamin supplements provided in gummy form. To entice children to consume these vitamins, manufacturers add sugars to make the gummy vitamins more palatable to the children. Processed juices may also contain unhealthy sugars which can increase the risk of getting dental decay. I am not discouraging the consumption of these processed foods completely but the less, the better. Control the frequency of consuming these foods (try to keep to once or twice a week and limit the consumption to mealtimes or as a dessert). Choose fresh fruits and vegetables over processed ones as much as possible.
3. Snacking frequently and/or storing food in mouth
The more often you put food/drink in your mouth, the more often the bacteria in the mouth gets fed. This is the main gist of sustaining the decay-causing bacteria in the mouth. People who do not eat nor place any food/drink into the mouth will not get dental decay. For dental decay to occur, there must be tooth, decay-causing bacteria and fermentable sugars present. So if your child eats frequently even if each time is just a small tiny piece of biscuit or a sip of juice, the decay process will begin or continue…making the environment in the mouth very pleasant for the decay-causing bacteria. Similarly if your child eats very slowly and stores food in the mouth (known as pouching), the bacteria will have a constant source of food to thrive and therefore increasing the risk of dental cavities significantly. Therefore, it is important to set a fixed time for meals about 30 minutes each time for your child and train him/her to finish his/her meal on time. Avoid too many distractions during mealtimes like watching television or playing games on tablets/mobile which can cause a delay in completing meals. After your child finishes his/her meal, try to wipe the insides at the cheek area to ensure none or minimal food debris remain in the mouth. This step is especially important if you notice your child has a habit of pouching.
4. Not using a fluoride toothpaste twice a day
Some parents I know have trouble switching their child from a non-fluoride toothpaste to a fluoride one. If your child’s dentist advises you to switch your child to a fluoride toothpaste, you should because fluoride helps to prevent cavities. Fluoride works best if the teeth are constantly exposed to fluoride even if at low levels but it is not realistic to keep brushing your child’s teeth throughout the day. Therefore, the minimum number of times to brush teeth is twice daily. And this also means to brush the teeth twice daily using fluoride toothpaste each time. I know of some parents who would brush the child’s teeth with a non-fluoride toothpaste in the morning and then use fluoride toothpaste at night. This is inadequate for maximizing the benefit of fluoride. Using more amount of toothpaste at once is not going to give more protection. Keep to either a rice grain amount or a pea-size amount as recommended by your child’s dentist. The frequency of brushing with fluoride toothpaste and the right concentration of fluoride would be more helpful than the amount of toothpaste used each time.