SATURDAY, May 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- What your child eats may be as critical as a toothbrush, toothpaste and a good dentist when it comes to a healthy smile.
In short, paying attention to your kid's diet can make a difference in dental health, recent research has confirmed.
And it's not just the obvious calls, such as limiting sugary snacks. Children who don't eat breakfast every day have higher levels of tooth decay, the study found, as do those who don't eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
"Kids who don't eat breakfast tend to snack more," explained Dr. Jonathan D. Shenkin, a pediatric dentist and co-author of the study, published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Dental Association.
Shenkin and his colleagues used data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted from 1988 to 1994, to investigate the relationship between healthful eating practices and tooth decay in more than 4,000 preschoolers, aged 2 to 5.
The odds of decay in baby teeth were greater in the children with poor eating habits, the study found.
Dental experts have long known dental decay is more likely among minority children in lower socioeconomic groups. But the latest study showed poor eating habits are also associated with tooth decay in children who aren't poor.
Dental health education should include encouraging parents to help their children eat better, the researchers concluded. Habits such as eating breakfast daily are associated with other healthy habits. Besides snacking less, "kids who eat breakfast tend to drink milk," Shenkin pointed out, and calcium is good for the teeth.
Cutting down on juice intake is also wise if you want to prevent cavities, Shenkin said. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends fruit juice intake among 1- to 6-year-olds be limited to four to six ounces a day. But more than 10 percent of preschoolers in the United States consume at least 12 fluid ounces of fruit juice a day, the study reported.
"I have parents telling me their children drink 40 ounces of juice a day," he added.
The sugar in sweetened liquids feeds bacteria harbored in the mouth. Those bacteria can then produce acids that corrode tooth enamel, according to the American Dental Association (ADA).
Good dental health habits must start early, stressed Dr. Richard Price, a spokesman for the ADA who practiced dentistry for 35 years before retiring recently. "Once the baby is born, dental health starts," he said.
"For infants, that means wiping the baby's gum pads once a day with sterile gauze," he said. Once a baby's first teeth appear, usually by 6 months of age, the child is susceptible to decay, according to the ADA. Babies should never be put to bed with a bottle of milk or juice because it can cause decay.
Ideally, a baby should first be seen by a dentist when the first tooth erupts, but certainly no later than the first birthday.
Some parents need to be educated about the importance of baby teeth, Price said. Some feel they aren't important because they eventually fall out and are replaced by permanent teeth.
"Baby teeth are important. Baby teeth help your child chew food, speak properly and save room for permanent teeth," he explained.
While the number of cavities in baby teeth have been decreasing during the past 20 years in children aged 5 to 9, it has remained unchanged among those aged 2 to 5 since the 1970s, the study authors noted.