You know it’s important to take care of your child’s teeth from an early age, but there’s more to keeping teeth healthy than regular brushing and flossing. What kids eat along with their lifestyle habits can affect how their teeth fare in childhood and throughout life.
Start your kids off right with a holistic oral care routine that looks at the bigger picture.
Children’s Dental Health: Why the Oral Microbiome is Important
Just like the gut, the mouth is home to a diverse community of bacteria. These microorganisms live in biofilms, more commonly known as plaque. When beneficial bacteria dominate, the plaque is clear and your child’s teeth look white and healthy. Sticky, colored plaque is a sign of pathogenic bacteria—the kind that can cause cavities and gum disease.
Unlike with the gut, diversity doesn’t appear to be what makes the oral microbiome healthy or unhealthy. Rather, it’s the dominant type of bacteria—and what they produce—that affects your child’s teeth. When the oral microbiome is balanced, beneficial bacteria keep pathogens at bay. But when kids’ teeth are exposed to foods that create an acidic environment, pathogens can take over.
This is because the mouth is meant to be slightly alkaline. However, some bacteria produce acids that lower the pH and promote demineralization, which leads to cavities. Kids who have cavities also appear to have different proteins in their saliva than those who don’t, and these proteins may further influence the types of bacteria that colonize the oral microbiome.
Foods that disrupt the oral microbiome
Sugar is the main culprit in these microbial imbalances.
In fact, eating too much sugar at a young age is one of the biggest reasons why kids get cavities. The pH in the mouth drops when bacteria break sugar down, which creates an environment where acid-loving pathogenic bacteria can thrive. The more often teeth are exposed to sugar, the greater the risk of cavities.
To minimize acidity and keep your child’s teeth healthy:
- Avoid sugary drinks like soda, fruit juice and sweetened dairy or non-dairy milks.
- Swap sticky candies, fruit snacks and fruit leathers for low-sugar alternatives like vegetables and hummus.
- Avoid lollipops and hard candies that stay in the mouth and expose teeth to sugar for long periods of time.
- Swap sweetened, artificially colored and artificially flavored toothpastes for natural alternatives.
Oral probiotics and probiotic toothpastes are also available to support microbial balance in the mouth.
Kids’ Dental Health and the Gut Microbiome
Because the mouth is the entry point to the digestive tract, problems can arise in the gut when bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease travel “downstream” and disrupt the intestinal microbiome.
An imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to inflammation and inappropriate immune responses. This can increase the risk of gum disease, as well as make it more difficult for your child to absorb nutrients that are essential for oral health. Some scientists believe there may be a link between gum disease and irritable bowel diseases like Chron’s and ulcerative colitis, although this has yet to be established through research.
Foods that disrupt the gut microbiome
As with the oral microbiome, food is a key factor in keeping microbes in the gut balanced. Popular “kid foods” like sweetened cereal, candy, cookies, baked sweets and processed heat-and-eat snacks lack the fiber necessary to support a healthy, diverse microbial population. Kids who load up on these foods may also be missing out on nutrients that support their developing teeth, such as vitamin C and folate.
Start introducing high-fiber plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains early in your child’s life to establish a healthy gut microbiome where beneficial bacteria thrive. Focus on color to maximize nutrient intake—and make eating more fun!
Lifestyle Habits to Keep Kids’ Teeth Healthy
Of course, it’s not all about the food. Lifestyle habits, including a good oral hygiene routine, are important for dental health throughout life.
Food and eating
Whole and minimally processed plant foods that provide nutrients and fiber for kids’ dental health require a lot more chewing than processed snacks. Teach your child to chew thoroughly when you introduce these foods. Good chewing stimulates saliva flow and kick-starts the digestive process in the mouth to maximize nutrient absorption.
Exercise and stress
Kids who are sedentary may be more prone to cavities, perhaps due to snacking on acid-promoting foods while watching television or playing video games. To combat this, encourage your child to be active by making time for movement every day.
However, balance is important. Stress can cause microbial imbalances in both the gut and the mouth, so make sure you don’t overschedule your kids with too many activities. Allow for unstructured play where they can just be kids and enjoy their childhood.
It’s recommended that kids go to the dentist every six months starting when they get their first tooth—and that’s also when you should start brushing their teeth. As your child gets older, start teaching him or her to brush twice daily for two minutes at a time. Help with flossing once a day until your child can do it alone.
Establishing these habits early gives kids a foundation for healthy teeth throughout life. Practice these habits yourself to keep your own teeth healthy and provide a good model for your kids. You’ll all enjoy healthier smiles and healthier bodies as a result.