How Sugar Affects Baby Teeth
By: Pediatric Dentist Laura Goodell
Kids can be picky eaters and demand soft drinks and sugary treats often, but it’s very important to establish healthy eating habits from an early age—not just because of the health effects on their body and growth overall, but because it affects their oral health too! Many parents aren’t aware of how sugar affects baby teeth and what causes cavities. Read on to discover how sugary and acidic food and drink affect your child’s teeth and how to help them have healthier eating habits.
What Causes Cavities?
A cavity requires three things to form: a tooth, bacteria, and carbohydrates (in other words: sugar). Once you consume sugars, it only takes 20 seconds for the bacteria on your teeth to combine with the sugar and turn into acid. This acid begins to attack tooth enamel and break it down. Over time this reaction of sugar and bacteria results in tooth decay, which leads to cavities.
Changes to the pH levels in our mouths also contribute to cavity formation. Cavities can form when the pH level in our mouth drops, which makes our mouths more acidic. Drops in pH occur when we consume acidic foods and beverages such as sports drinks, lemonade, and soda, or sugary foods such as candy, cookies, and other junk foods. When we eat these foods and drinks, the bacteria that live on our teeth convert the sugar to acid, causing the pH in our mouth to drop.
It takes about 20 minutes for the saliva in our mouth to neutralize this drop in pH level. So with every sip of soda, the clock restarts, and our mouth is forming cavities for 20 whole minutes!
Take a look at these common drinks and see if they have low pH levels…if they do, they’re contributing to cavities in your mouth (or your child’s mouth!). In general, our goal is to keep our mouth at a neutral pH of 7, which water will do! Generally, anything under 5.5 will cause cavities.
Learn more about the effects of drinking sugar and acidic drinks throughout the day at sipallday.org, a website from the Minnesota Dental Association.
In general, diets that are high in sugar are associated with higher rates of cavities. Also, kids that drink milk or juice from sippy cups throughout the day are at higher risk for dental decay due to increased exposure of sugar to their teeth, leading to a risk of baby bottle tooth decay.
How to Prevent Cavities
To prevent cavities, I recommend closely monitoring your child’s sipping and snacking habits.
- Ensure your child drinks only water between meals. If your child drinks from a sippy cup between meals, only give them water. Juice and even milk are high in sugar and will unnecessarily expose your child’s teeth to too much sugar.
- Give your child milk or juice at mealtime only. The food helps to wash away the extra sugar found in these beverages. In general, a child should have no more than 4 ounces of juice per day. Fruit juice has more sugar than you’d think, and the sugar is much more concentrated than eating a piece of raw fruit.
- Limit snacking throughout the day. I use the five fingers on my hand to teach my patients healthy eating habits: you have five fingers, so don’t eat more than five times in a day (breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and dinner).
- Treats are fine in moderation, but it’s best to choose the lesser of two evils. I recommend chocolate because it melts away from the teeth while candies such as caramel, sour gummies, and chewy candies are sticky and the sugars will stick around the mouth for longer periods of time. I also like to recommend sugar free or fruit popsicles over popsicles that are purely sugar.
Overall, healthy eating habits not only prevent cavities but they also promote a healthy weight and lifestyle, setting your child up for a healthier childhood! If you have questions about your child’s diet and how sugar affects baby teeth, ask your child’s pediatric dentist at their next appointment. We’ll be happy to discuss what causes cavities and give additional tips for preventing tooth decay in your little one’s mouth!