I just read something shocking: Dentists are seeing preschoolers with 6 to 10 cavities or more.

The New York Times reported this past week:

One 2½ year old with 11 cavities (out of 20 baby teeth) was given general anesthesia so his dentist could extract two incisors, perform a root canal on a molar, and treat the rest of his cavity-laden teeth with fillings and crowns.

Apparently, this kid’s experience isn’t that unusual.  Read the full The New York Times article.

You probably suspect sugar is the culprit.

And it is. But not in the way you might expect.  Think frequency, not volume.

Eating any starchy or sugary food causes the pH level in the mouth to drop sharply, leaving teeth awash in an acid bath — murder on enamel — for 20 minutes until saliva normalizes the pH. The frequency of exposure to acid is more important than the sugar content of food.

What do dentists recommend?  Reduce snacking.

Of course, there are other things you need to do to prevent cavities.

  • Brush your toddler’s teeth.
  • Bring your toddler to the dentist by her first birthday.
  • Make sure your toddler drinks flouridated tap water instead of bottled water.

But I think you should tackle snacking.  Let’s face it, the current state of snacking in America simply isn’t working. Dental problems are only part of the reason why.

Reduce snacking and your toddler will:

  1. Be less susceptible to cavities.
  2. Learn to fit snacks into the day in the appropriate way.
  3. Eat better at meals.

Think of it a habits trifecta! A win-win-win situation.

The rise in snacking since 1977 has been steep for all Americans. It’s been steepest for 2-6 year olds. 

Research shows:

  • Kids get most of their snack calories from desserts and sweetened beverages.
  • At the same time, kids are drinking more fruit juice and eating less actual fruit.

The result?  Kids 2 – 6 years old have added an additional 182 calories per day to their diet—almost all of them the acid-attacking, cavity-producing kind.

Read The Snack Attack and Snacking and the Nutrition Zone Mentality.

The sugar habit starts early and strengthens throughout childhood.

The National Center for Health Statistics recently published a data brief on sugar consumption.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting total intake of discretionary calories, which include added sugars and solid fats, to 5%-15% of daily caloric intake.

Kids 2-5 years old take in roughly 13% of their calories from added sugars.

Older kids consume even more.

Contrary to public perception, most sugar consumption occurs in the home.

The bad news: We can’t keep blaming schools and sports teams for our kids’ crummy habits. Yes, I’d love to see those places clean up their acts, but we’ve got a little housecleaning to do too.

The good news: If kids are eating much of their sugar at home, we can change things. Power to the Parents!!

So, what can you do?

1) Don’t let your toddler constantly graze. Space out meals and snacks.

Create times when you provide food and drinks (other than water) and times when you don’t.

Think of these times as food zones. If your child chooses not to eat during these zones—because he’s not hungry, he’s distracted or because he’s just being contrary—make him wait until he’s in the next zone.  If this idea makes you crazy read The Upside of Hunger and Conscious Parenting.

2) Upgrade the quality of the snacks you serve.

Serve more “real” food.  Not only will this make your life better—Read 10 Ways Upgrading Your Kids’ Snacking Will Improve YOUR Life—but you won’t have to pay so much attention to added sugar either.

That’s good, because added sugar is everywhere:

  • Goldfish Crackers
  • Many brands of chicken nuggets and fish sticks.
  • Bread
  • Pasta sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Ranch dressing

I’m not suggesting you become a crazy, anti-snack fanatic.

Teaching kids how to snack right won’t just save their teeth. It also will teach them the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~