Even if your little ones are brushing their teeth twice a day, it might not be enough to stave off tooth decay. We’ve spoken to dentist Bethany Fisher to get to the bottom of what it takes to maintain your kids’ dental health.
Bethany of Dr Bethany’s Tooth Tales says many of us are missing the mark when it comes to oral hygiene for our kids. From ultra-processed diets to insufficient cleaning routines, we’ve got a lot to learn.
"Tooth decay is devastatingly common in young children which most parents are unaware of," she says. “In Australia, 1 in 3 children develop tooth decay before they start school and almost 50% haven’t yet visited the dentist.
"The Australian Dental Association recommends (in line with recommendations around the world) the first dental visit occur by the first birthday.”
Luckily with a few simple changes we can get our kids off to a good start in life. Here are Bethany’s top tips for keeping your kids’ teeth healthy.
The worst foods for oral health
It’s widely known that sugar is bad for our teeth, but it’s especially bad when it’s sticky – that’s right, the texture of your food is important too. Providing your kids with crunchy foods helps improve blood flow along with encouraging saliva production, making raw veggies ideal options. If you’re going for something sweet, whole fruit like apples are ideal as they also have that crunch. But Bethany says it’s not just sweet, sticky foods we have to be careful of – there are a number of savoury offenders.
"It’s no secret that we know eating sugar isn’t great for our teeth. Anything that is sticky and gets stuck in our mouths (eg sticky lollies) or with a long exposure time (eg lollipops or sipping juice throughout the day) is worse as it increases the amount of time bacteria have access to sugar in our mouths, giving them longer to produce acid that weakens our enamel (and contributes to decay over time),” she says. “Parents are often surprised that refined carbs (chips, pretzels, dry crackers) can contribute to tooth decay too. I’m sure we’ve all had the feeling of chips and other dry foods getting stuck in our teeth after eating them and these eventually break down into sugar too when left undisturbed."
Another popular snack food, dried fruit, is not as good as it sounds – though it may be made from natural ingredients, the effects on teeth are not ideal.
But it’s not about demonising foods – Bethany says these carbs can still have a place in our diet.
“This isn’t to say we can’t eat refined carbs but instead to educate on the impact these “non-sugary” foods can have on our teeth to change when and how we eat them, especially if we are also having another sugar exposure throughout the day – it’s all about frequency.”
What should kids eat instead?
Foods that help restore the pH balance of your mouth and are low in sugar are the ideal options. Bethany recommends sticking to whole foods – here’s why.
“Hard, crunchy foods (like carrots, apples, nuts where safe to do so) are fantastic for a few reasons. Firstly, they stimulate saliva flow which is our #1 self-defence agent against tooth decay. Crunchy foods can also have a “self- cleaning” effect in which they can help dislodge bits of food stuck in and around our teeth,” she says. “Cheese is also fantastic for our teeth. Dairy products low in sugar can help strengthen our enamel and counteract the impact of acid from bacteria.”
Cheese is also loaded with calcium for strong bones and teeth, along with vitamin K2 – particularly in Swiss and Nordic varieties of cheese. You’ll get around 220 milligrams of calcium in a 28-gram serving of Swiss cheese – that’s well over 20% of our daily needs. K2 plays a role in protecting bones and it’s believed to have a more powerful effect than vitamin K, also known as vitamin K1. You’ll find vitamin K2 in eggs and a Japanese fermented specialty known as natto – it contains a variety of vitamin K2 known as MK-7, which is believed to help calcium bind to bone proteins in our body, thereby improving the health of our teeth. It’s not a bad idea to get the little ones enjoying fermented foods from a young age to help them acquire a taste for it.
Bethany says keeping things in moderation is important – while some foods are better for our health, there’s no need to completely cut out the not-so-healthy ones.
“It’s all about balance and moderation,” she says. “Limiting frequency of exposure is the most important, as well as combining these foods with a good tap-water intake, eating them around meal times where possible, eating in one sitting (not snacking numerous times throughout the day), and finishing off with crunchy foods like carrots to help get our saliva flowing!”
Getting your kids interested in their hygiene
Getting kids excited about their dental hygiene can be a challenge – but Bethany says it’s all in the approach. The dentist has a number of tricks to getting kids involved in their health, and it doesn’t have to be boring.
“Taking a family approach can be helpful – let your kids see you brush and floss your teeth and let them brush and floss your teeth too,” she says. “Brush your teeth together in the bathroom and make it fun – you can brush along to my two-minute toothbrushing song! Sticker reward charts in the bathroom can be helpful too and there are lots of great free apps available to get kids excited about brushing.”
Bethany also recommends the following tips to get your kids excited about their dental health:
- Let them choose their toothbrush and toothpaste from a number of options
- Brush early in the evening to reduce bedtime stress
- Use a brushing chart with stickers to reward accountability
- Celebrate their successes
Along with her two-minute toothbrushing song, Bethany also has a number of videos she uses to get her patients interested in their oral hygiene – head on over to her Instagram page, @drbethanystoothtales, for access to this fun content.
While you should be brushing your child’s teeth until the age of 6 and assisting until the age of 8 due to a lack of dexterity, Bethany says letting kids to have a go of it in the lead up to a dental visit can be beneficial.
“Having your child brush their own teeth the week before their dental visits can be helpful for the dentist to point out to your child the spots they are missing with their brushing and discuss with them why it is important that parents are helping, Bethany says. “I always remind kids that we are all on the same team when it comes to looking after their teeth and we want mum or dad to help to make sure their teeth are healthy for a long time.”