Preventing tooth decay in babies and children

Toddler brushing teeth

Getting your children to brush their teeth can be one of life’s biggest challenges (after getting them to find their shoes, eat their dinner, be normal…) – but preventing tooth decay is an important part of getting the best start in life

Tooth decay is largely preventable, yet it remains a serious problem for children. Findings from Public Health England’s 2015 national dental survey of five-year-old children, showed that in 2015, in England, a quarter had experienced tooth decay, with three or four teeth affected.

Poor dental health impacts not just the child’s health, but also their wellbeing and that of their family. Children who have toothache, or who need treatment, may have pain, infections and difficulties with eating, sleeping and socialising.

Children who have toothache, or who need treatment, may have to be absent from school and parents may also have to take time off work to take them to a dentist or to hospital.

So, how can it be prevented?

The best way to prevent tooth decay in children is to do the following:

  • reduce the amount of sugar they eat.
  • brush their teeth with fluoride toothpaste, twice a day.
  • visit the dentist regularly. Remember, it’s free for children to visit an NHS dentist.

Reducing sugar for children

Baby drinking milk

With the constant pestering for Percy Pigs and chocolate buttons, sometimes reducing your child’s sugar intake can seem like a constant battle – but fret not, it is possible. Here are some ways you can try to do this:

  • Reduce the number of snacks children have – any sweet food should be given at mealtimes and sugary foods and drinks should be avoided before bedtime.
  • Sugary drinks have no place in a child's daily diet – try swapping to water, lower fat milks or sugar-free, diet and no-added-sugar drinks instead.
  • One glass of 150ml unsweetened fruit juice does count as one of your child’s five-a-day – but try to avoid giving them any more than this amount and keep it for meal times.

Brushing children's teeth

Baby having teeth brushed

As an essential part of looking after their teeth, it's key to get the method right. Here's how to do it:

  • Children should use fluoride toothpaste and start brushing as soon as their first primary tooth appears.
  • They should spit and not rinse – rinsing with water washes away the fluoride and reduces how well it works.
  • They should brush their teeth at least twice a day – last thing at night and at one other occasion during the day that suits your family routine.
  • For maximum protection from decay, all children should use a family toothpaste with 1350 to 1500ppm fluoride (the amount can be found on the side of the tube or on the packaging).
toothpaste smear

The amount of toothpaste to be used is dependent on age – little ones only need a little:

  • Children under three should use a smear of toothpaste.
toothpaste pea
  • Children aged between three and six should use a pea-sized amount.
  • Children up to seven should be supervised: parents/carers should help their child to brush their teeth to make sure they are cleaned properly, to supervise the amount of toothpaste used and to prevent licking or eating the toothpaste.

Visiting the dentist

Child at the dentist

Going to the dentist early and preventing tooth decay means trips can be fun and key to a healthy smile.

Take your child to see the dentist as soon as their first teeth start to appear (at around six months) and visit as often as the dentist recommends.

Remember, NHS treatment is free for all women during pregnancy and up to the child’s first birthday. It’s also free for children under 18 (or 19 if they are in full-time education).

For children under three years

From the age of six months, bottle-fed babies should be introduced to drinking from a free-flow cup. Bottle-feeding should be discouraged from 12 months old. Only breast or formula milk or cooled, boiled water should be given in bottles.

Breastfeeding up to twelve months of age is associated with reduced levels of tooth decay.

What Mumsnetters say:

“You should take your children to the dentist as soon as they have teeth – if only to get them used to sitting in the chair and having their teeth looked at. Good dental hygiene should be practised from as early on as possible.”

“Limit things like fruit juice and dried fruit – even though they seem healthy in comparison to other drinks and snacks, they're also full of sugar, which is really bad for children's teeth.”