Little ones get invited to birthday parties almost every month, which means that I, also get invited to birthday parties almost every month. While she enjoys the games, I catch up with the adults and enjoy the plethora of treats on offer. Because I’m a dentist, the conversation often steers toward cavities, fillings, dental experiences and dental expenses. At least once, I’m asked, “Katelyn doesn’t have any cavities in her teeth, does she? Is this because you don’t let her eat any treats? Share your dentist secrets!!”

Sorry to disappoint.

There are no secret short-cuts to keeping cavities away. The basics of regular toothbrushing, flossing and eating healthy are still the gold standards for good oral health. 

Even healthy foods, like fresh fruits, grains and breads, can result in dental cavities if residuals are left in the mouth for long. Although research suggests that when compared to added sugars or free sugars, natural sugars in fresh fruitsbreads and grains do not contribute significantly to the development of dental decay. However, natural sugars are still sugars. 

It is also worth considering that carbohydrates, including starch, break down to glucose – a basic sugar, that not only fuels our bodies and minds but also fuel the cavity-causing germs in our mouth to produce acids that destroy our teeth. We even have enzymes in our saliva (they are called “amylases”) to kickstart the carbohydrate breakdown process.

It’s true, Katelyn doesn’t have dental cavities to date, but it’s not because we are ultra-disciplined with treats. We have a strict daily regimen of flossing and toothbrushing with fluoride toothpaste. This routine happens morning and night regardless of moods, tantrums, and tiredness. If she falls asleep, the toothbrush still goes in and toothbrushing is still done. When she was little, her father and I did her toothbrushing and flossing for her. Now that she’s older, we help only at night.

The aim is for good oral hygiene practices to become second nature. Early establishment of desirable oral hygiene habits have been shown to provide long-term protective effects against oral problems such as tooth decay.

As for treats? Most children enjoy treats! I enjoy treats! I’ve not seen consistent success in preventing cavities by forbidding treats. It takes way too much discipline to totally eradicate treats from our pantries, probably more so than regular toothbrushing and flossing. When it comes to food and drinks, a balanced diet for overall health and well-being, remains key.

Don’t Forget, it’s not Just Sugars That are Bad for Teeth

Acid-loving-acid-producing germs cause dental decay, which when allowed to progress over time, becomes a dental cavity as teeth structures are destroyed. Even acids alone, without cavity-causing germs, can be destructive to teeth structures and result in dental erosion. When both dental erosion and dental decay occur in the same mouth, destruction of teeth structures may occur more quickly, resulting in bigger, deeper cavities and toothaches. The problems become exponentially worse when residual foods, sugars and/or acids are allowed to stay on the surfaces of teeth for extended periods of time. Sticky foods and drinks are especially difficult to clear completely from the mouth.

Sweet + Sour + Sticky = Sick Sad Teeth

Treat temptations aren’t going to disappear anytime soon, but certain types of treats are worth avoiding if possible. When it comes to choosing treats, my family avoids treats that are of the “3 S” category – treats that are SWEET and SOUR and STICKY, because “sweet + sour + sticky = sick sad teeth”.  For example, we try to stay away from juices, dried fruits, toffees, candies and carbonated drinks.

Avoid Frequent Treats

Cavities are also more likely to form when our teeth are “attacked” by frequent eating and drinking. Every time we eat and drink, the oral environment becomes acidic (oral pH decreases) which put our tooth structures at risk of destruction. The saliva in our mouth helps to balance the oral pH back to “happy neutral mode”. If the oral pH does not get to recover in time for the next “attack”, irreversible destruction of the tooth structures becomes more likely. For this reason, in my family, we try to have treats all once rather than having treats throughout the day. Avoiding treats just before bed might also be helpful since when we sleep, there is less saliva to protect our teeth.

Drink Water

We also make sure we drink plenty of water after food, regardless of it being treats or healthy foods, with the aim of clearing some of the residuals away from our teeth and mouth. If drinks other than water are consumed, a drinking straw is used if at all possible and swishing avoided, to reduce contact with teeth surfaces. (I even drink my latte through a straw, hilarious as that may seem.)

Start Prevention Early

Science has proven that taste preferences are developed in the early years of life In order to limit “sweet tooth” tendencies during “taste training,” we kept foods as natural as possible in the first 3 years of Katelyn’s life. In addition to taste development, the bacteria in our mouths (oral flora) are also establishing themselves in these early years.  We did not share utensils, foods, or drinks with Katelyn when she was young to limit her exposure to the acid-loving-acid-producing decay-causing bacteria that could establish itself early in Katelyn’s mouth. These microscopic nasties are transferred by saliva. The earlier the decay-causing bacteria is permanently established, the higher the risks of dental decay for life.

Educate and Motivate – Help Children Make Good Lifestyle Choices

As a mom, I’ve also come to realize, that educating children to make the right choices is much more beneficial than setting rules (particularly, the “don’ts”) that they must follow. This applies to many aspects of growing up and learning including, treats and oral hygiene practices. 

When Katelyn came home with her first jelly beans (as a reward from her teacher for being good in class), the thoughts of “why can’t these be stickers?” and “if this kid gets a tooth decay from regular jelly beans rewarded in class, who is going to pay the dental fees?” crossed my mind. I was happy that Katelyn chose not to eat the jelly beans and brought them home just to “show and tell”. I was thankful that something from our many chats about nasty germs, 3 “S” foods and drinks, hurt teeth, actually stuck with her and made enough impact for her not to succumb to the exciting new world of jelly beans. Helping our children make good lifestyle choices from an early age, have lifelong benefits.