Join our Forum

Teeth and Early Years

Child Development

Food and the way that it is offered to children can make a huge impact on not only their diet and weight but also on their teeth. Teeth play a huge role in a child’s development including helping to form the shape of a child's face.  Figures suggest that one in four 5year olds have had dental decay and that 170 children a day had operations to have rotten teeth removed.

Losing baby teeth has far more implications than just losing a tooth too early.   The effects can be far-reaching, research has shown that not only can speech be impaired, but children can fail to thrive, can have low self-esteem, and can have difficulty concentrating when they go to school.

Children who have severe tooth decay may well weigh less than they should and even suffer from malnutrition.  Toothache and infections can be common, and these can lead to altered sleep patterns as well as eating habits and food choices being affected.

It is incredible to think that tooth decay amongst children is really quite high and for all sorts of reasons, children eating the wrong sorts of foods, the lack of water in the diet, and the lack of brushing of teeth are all factors to be considered.

Speech development, Confidence and Self-Esteem

By the age of 3, most children will have their full set of ‘baby teeth’ These teeth are replaced by adult teeth and start to fall out around the age of 6. By the age of 21, a full set of adult teeth will have formed. Losing teeth early affects the way that adult teeth grow.  Baby teeth hold the space for an adult tooth. Adult teeth trying to enter the mouth can become blocked and overcrowding can occur. This may lead to the top and bottom jaws not closing probably due to the teeth being crooked.

Children who lose teeth too early mainly due to dental caries may well suffer from problems with their speech and need to have speech therapy. This can have an impact on a child as they may not be able to be understood or to talk clearly.

Children  love to smile, to be happy and confident, however, children often become self-conscious when they have teeth they are not proud of and often choose to keep their mouths shut, maybe even refusing to play with other children

Children’s confidence can be affected by the impact that losing teeth brings: a crowded mouth, and problems with speech development.

What causes tooth decay?

Tooth decay is mainly caused by the foods that are eaten and how they are eaten.

Sugar is a prime culprit for tooth decay, however, is not just sugar, it is also the starch in foods, the stickiness of foods, and also the acidity of the food.

Foods and drinks such as:

      Fizzy drinks, fruit juice.

      Sweets, especially ones that are sticky such as lollipops, pieces of rock.

      Sticky foods, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta and crackers. These are all simple carbs - they turn into sugar and cling to the teeth.

      Dried fruit - Is it a healthy snack? Maybe, but they are also sticky and also cling to the teeth. Encourage children to eat actual fruit and encourage water to be drunk after eating.

      Bananas - a great fruit but again full of sugar that sticks to teeth. Don’t eat as a snack - eat as part of a meal - and no grazing!

      Citrus fruit - Oranges, apples, grapefruit, are all great fruit, packed with Vitamin C, but they are also full of acid which attacks the teeth. Give to children sparingly and encourage a glass of water afterward.

      Chips - are full of starch, which turns into sugar and coats the teeth.

What is Plaque?

Let’s think about plaque. This is a substance that coats our teeth. It is a thin, sticky layer that contains lots of bacteria. Foods that are high in sugars react with these bacteria and form acids that attack the teeth and help to dissolve the enamel and make holes in the teeth. The enamel on a child’s tooth is thinner than the enamel on adult teeth so decay can occur more easily.

How to Prevent Tooth Decay

Learn to love salvia! It is your best friend for protecting teeth. It helps to wash away sugars that have been eaten, that would otherwise sit on the teeth.  Saliva needs water to be made, hence why it is so important for water to be drunk.  At periods when children are asleep, night time and naps, saliva production slows down and is not able to work as it does during waking hours.

Discourage grazing. Children should sit down to eat whether it is a meal or a snack. Food should not be continually available. This can be challenging especially for children who are not used to this approach. Allowing a child to ‘graze’ is detrimental to teeth because there is a continual supply of food, hence sugar. There is never a time when the teeth are clear of food. This is heaven for bacteria.

Here are some more tips:

      Never give children a sugary drink or food before bed or nap time - best of all: don’t give children sugary drinks, ever!

      Never allow a child to fall asleep and stay on the breast - milk contains sugar too.

      Never give a child a bottle of milk or juice to go to sleep with.

      Use straws - these fast-track fluids to the back of the mouth, missing the teeth.

      Encourage children to drink water. This helps to rinse the mouth after a meal. Water also keeps the body hydrated and encourages saliva production.

      Avoid trainer cups with juice. These cause drinks to be drunk slowly. The high sugar content is allowed time to collect on the teeth.

      Offer cheese with or after a meal or snack as this encourages saliva production.

Finally, think about giving children food they must chew - this encourages saliva production. There are many other benefits such as developing a feel for the taste and texture of food and developing strong speech muscles. Too many soft or processed foods can lead to tooth decay.

Brush Those Teeth!

Often children do not like their teeth being cleaned. It can be a struggle to get their attention when there are so many distractions. Get into some good habits when the children are young. Children learn by example, so it can be a good idea for adults to clean their teeth at the same time as the children. Try and make it fun! Clean each other’s teeth, sing a song, makeup stories, turn it into a game.

Here are some more things to remember:

      Clean babies teeth after each feed either bottle or breast and after any medicine that contains sugar

      Clean children's teeth during the day, after meals as well as last thing at night.

      Clean a baby's mouth at least once a day with a soft cloth, even before the teeth come in. A tiny, rice-grain sized amount of fluoride toothpaste can be used when the teeth first start to arrive.

Baby Feeding

Some final thoughts on baby feeding which will help develop healthy habits:

      Never give a baby a bottle in bed or when having a nap.

      Only ever give milk or water in a baby bottle. Any sort of sugary drink must not be sipped - use a cup or beaker.

      The bottle should not be used as a pacifier.

      Babies need to move on from the bottle to a cup from 12 months.

      Ensure dummies are clean. Never coat them in sugar or honey. Ideally, avoid dummies which are bad for development in so many ways.


Toddlers need to snack, it is important for their energy and nutrient needs, however, it is important to offer healthy snacks and to treat these as mini-meals. Remember no grazing!

Think, fruits and veggies, hummus, whole grain bread, cheese, tofu bites, hard-boiled eggs, avocado.

Avoid sugary or acidic snacks and drinks between meals. They can increase the risk of decay because teeth come under constant attack and do not have time to recover.

As children get older, they can get all the nutrients they need from 3 meals. Snacking should be phased out.  This can be challenging if children are always hungry, so move towards foods that are not going to stick to the teeth, foods that are eaten quickly.

With thought and attention parents and carers can give their children a great start in life by looking after their teeth. Otherwise, decades of tooth problems can lie ahead.

Good habits for teeth become good habits for health and nutrition in general. 

Article by Sarah Scotland. 


Submit your comment

© 2022 -