We may be a health-conscious society, but tooth decay among children is a growing problem in Australia – and sugary food and drinks can contribute to the problem.

Nearly half of children have experienced tooth decay by the age of 9-10, according to the latest National Child Oral Health Study. For more than one-third of kids, decay starts even earlier by the age of 5-6 years.1

Unfortunately, many kids and teens are consuming lots of sugar in soft drinks, snacks and other sources. This sugar can feed bacteria in their mouths that produce acids, which weaken and damage their tooth enamel. Over time, this can lead to cavities and expose the sensitive interior of their teeth.

The good news is this: you can take steps to lower their risk of tooth decay. Some decay is caused by a high-sugar diet combined with poor oral hygiene. so helping them limit their sugar intake and encouraging good oral health habits can make a big difference.

1. Avoid or limit sugary drinks

Maybe this one seems obvious, but it’s important to understand why and practical steps for doing it.

Consuming lots of sugar-sweetened drinks are a major cause of tooth decay. A survey of children aged 6-13 found that almost two-thirds drink fruit juice, more than half consume soft drinks and just under one-third drink cordials and frozen drinks in a typical week.2

Many of these drinks contain serious amounts of sugar, which is bad for kids' teeth and can also lead to weight gain and increase their risk of other health problems. This doesn't just apply to soft drinks either, as a 350ml bottle of cola contains the same amount of sugar as apple juice (40 grams, or 10 teaspoons). Even sugar-free varieties are still highly acidic, which can erode and weaken the teeth.

Encouraging your children to drink water or milk instead can greatly reduce their risk of tooth decay and can even help to strengthen their teeth, especially if the water's fluoridated. If they don't want to give up these drinks completely, they can protect their teeth by drinking through a straw, rinsing their mouth with water after and not drinking just before bed.

2. Always read the labels

A big step toward limiting sugar intake is knowing what to look for. If you're not sure how much sugar is contained in packaged food or drink you're buying for your child, reading the labels can give you a rough idea. Products with less than 5g per 100g are generally low in sugar.

But you should also check the ingredients list for naturally-occurring sugars that may not count towards this total, such as fructose or lactose. Added sugars may also be listed under a variety of names (at least 42 according to choice.com.au), with those higher up the list being present in larger quantities.

3. Cut down on sugar at breakfast

Start the day by preparing your child a healthy breakfast. Swap out sugary spreads like honey and jam for low-fat cream, cottage cheese and sliced banana, buy wholegrain rather than refined cereals, and offer a piece of fresh fruit instead of fruit juice.

4. Pack a healthy lunchbox

To make sure your kids are eating right and getting the nutrition they need throughout the day, pack a healthy lunch that balances grains (such as whole grain bread, cooked pasta or rice), vegetables (fresh salad or cooked veggies), protein, dairy and a serving of fresh fruit, along with water or milk.

5. Rethink your recipes

You can reduce sugar in your home-made drinks and desserts by half (or more) when you substitute ingredients. For baking, try apple puree, mashed banana or cinnamon in place of sugar, and raw cacao instead of cooking chocolate. For cold summer drinks, fresh fruit smoothies healthier alternatives to milkshakes and fruit juice.

6. Follow good oral hygiene

Even when they cut down on the sugar, kids can still be at risk of tooth decay if they don't look after their teeth. Young children often need their parents' help to brush their teeth, but even older kids may need encouragement to make sure they're brushing properly for the recommended two minutes.

Keeping up with your child's dental check-ups is another important part of routine oral care. This gives their dentist the chance to monitor the development of their teeth, improve the chances of treating small problems before they become serious, and offer tips and guidance on your child’s at-home oral hygiene.

Find your local Bupa-owned dentist.

Sources

The University of Adelaide. Oral health of Australian children: The National Child Oral Health Study 2012-14 [Online] 2016 [Accessed January 2018] Available from: www.adelaide.edu.au

Roy Morgan. Roy Morgan Young Australians Survey, July 2015-June 2016 [Online] 2017 [Accessed January 2018] Available from: www.roymorgan.com