“Can I have some juice?” “Mum, I want an ice-cream.” Sounds familiar, right? There’s a reason that children have a sweet tooth. Kids are evolutionarily programmed to prefer a higher level of sweetness than adults because, for children, growth is imperative and they have high energy demands. Sugar is naturally high in calories, and sweet foods are the quickest way to get them.

Tooth decay in children is on the rise. Over half of Australian six-year-olds are showing decay in their baby teeth, and almost half of 12-year-olds are showing decay in their permeant teeth. While this is concerning, the good news is that decay is preventable. You just need to ensure your child has a healthy relationship with sugar.

Signs of tooth decay in children

Cavities develop slowly over time, so the signs of tooth decay can be hard to pick up in the early stages. Be on the lookout for:
  • a dull white band on the tooth surface, closest to the gum line (the first sign of decay)
  • a yellow, brown or black band on the tooth surface, closest to the gum line (the progression of decay)
  • teeth that look like brownish-black stumps (advanced decay).

How to manage your toddler’s sweet

  • Pay attention to sugar content on food labels – in order to know how much sugar is in food, you need to know how to spot it on the label. The nutrition label and the ingredients list will help you spot added sugars.
  • Keep your drinks simple – stick to milk and water as your child’s main drinks and eliminate juice and soft-drinks from their diet. If you don’t want to lose juice entirely, always go for a freshly-squeezed alternative over pre-bottled.
  • Avoid rewarding children with treats – kids are often rewarded for good behaviour with sugar. Although this is common, it conditions children to form an unhealthy attachment to sugar and expect it as a reward.
  • Find a balance – while you want to curb your child’s dependence on treats, you also want them to be able to make their own food decisions later down the line. Banning sugar, or keeping it under lock and key, may reinforce the desire for treats. Instead, show your child that a dessert, or a sweet, can be included as part of a balanced diet.