Because so-called baby teeth fall out during childhood, parents may not worry too much about preventing cavities in the early years. But decay in those little teeth can have serious and far-reaching health consequences. Cavities can hurt and the pain can interfere with a child’s ability to eat, sleep or speak. Unfortunately, there is an alarming rise in the number of young kids showing up at the dentist’s office with several cavities.
The New York Times recently ran an article that said there has been a spike in young children (across all income levels) with six to 10 cavities or more. “We have had a huge increase in kids going to the operating room,” said a spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “We’re treating more kids more aggressively and earlier.”
Montreal pediatric dentist Dr. Patrick Canonne operated on my son Max to fill eight cavities last August. I spoke to him recently about why he believes cavities in kids have been increasing steadily since he began practicing more than 30 years ago. We also talked about what parents can do to address the problem.
He says it is a complex issue and there are several reasons for this trend. One of the big changes has been how, when and what our children eat. Snacking is far more common today, with children munching throughout the day on things like granola bars, dried fruit, chips or cookies, which can cause tooth decay. Bread, crackers and bananas can also be problematic. Canonne explains that eating starchy or sugary foods causes the pH level in the mouth to drop, which means the mouth is awash in acid that can eat away at enamel. Not good! Instead, children should be snacking on foods with more fibre such as apples or carrots because these foods help the body produce more saliva, which neutralizes bacteria in the mouth and reduces the chance of decay.
Canonne adds that children also drink more milk, liquid yogurt, soft drinks, juice and other beverages that have ‘flavour,’ which ultimately means sugar. “Most kids aren’t happy about drinking water because it doesn’t have any flavour so parents give them sweet drinks instead,” he says.
Another issue is that parents often have less control over what their children are eating because more kids are being cared for by a babysitter or in a daycare (especially in families where both parents work).
As well, some cities have taken fluoride out of the drinking water. For example, Calgary stopped fluoridation and the number of cavities increased by 30 per cent.
So what can parents do? Dr. Canonne offers the following eight cavity-prevention tips:
- Limit the amount of juice (4 oz a day with food) and other beverages with high sugar content.
- Brush and floss twice a day.
- Between meals, give your child more high-fibre snacks like apples and celery. Fruits (except bananas, which are high in starch), vegetables, cheese, chicken or other meats, and nuts are also good choices. Avoid candy, cookies, cake, muffins, chips, pretzels, raisins or other dried fruit.
- Check your toddler’s teeth once a month for dull white spots or lines and dark teeth (all signs of decay).
- Start flossing as soon as two adjacent teeth appear in the mouth.
- If the water in your city is not fluoridated, ask your child’s dentist if he or she should be taking fluoride tablets.
- Take your child for regular dental check-ups.
- Don’t give kids snacks or juice right before bedtime.