The ‘Heartbreaking’ Reality Of Sugar-Induced Tooth Decay In Children

'It not unheard of for me to take all 20 baby teeth out.’

15/07/2016 00:01
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Monday mornings are pretty bleak for Claire Stevens. As an NHS dental consultant, she has to prepare herself for yet another week of pulling out children’s teeth.

“I’ll see around eight children every week who need to have multiple teeth taken out under a general anaesthetic because the decay is so bad,” she tells The Huffington Post UK.

“It not unheard of for me to take all 20 baby teeth out for a child who is two years old.

“I find it heartbreaking that these children are going through a procedure that could have been prevented.”

Tooth decay remains the number one reason why children aged between five and nine are admitted to hospital in England and our 21st century diets are largely to blame.

Whenever we eat or drink something with sugar in it, the bacteria in our mouths will metabolise that sugar and produce acid. That acid causes dental decay and the more often we eat sugary foods, the more at risk we are.

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Stevens, who’s also a spokesperson for the British Dental Association and the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry, says sugary drinks are the number one culprit when it comes to childhood tooth decay.

Her young patients stay hydrated with a mixture of fizzy drinks and juice, both of which can contain more sugar than the recommended daily limits of 19g for four to six-year-olds and 24g for seven to 10-year-olds.

Stevens also points out that the current generation of parents rely much more on sugar-laden processed foods than their parents did.

“Society expects us to be on the go all the time,” she says.

“It’s normal to be feeding your children meals that someone else has prepared rather than making them yourself. It’s a societal change.”

It’s not just what children eat and drink that matters, but when they have it.

“We have become a nation of grazers. Snacks are normalised - rather than the three meals per day I grew up on, kids expect to have ready access to food,” Stevens says.

She explains that if two people drink a can of coke, with one person drinking it in one go and the other sipping it during the day, the second person will have a higher risk of tooth decay, even though you’ve had the same quantity of sugar.

“It takes anything from 30 minutes to two hours for the mouth to recover [from the acid],” she says.

“If you’re snacking or drinking sugar more than every 30 minutes, there’s no chance for the mouth to recover.”

Claire Stevens

The impact of decay extends far beyond a bit of toothache for many children.

According to Dr Sandra White, director of dental public health at Public Health England (PHE), it can “cause pain, problems with sleep, days off school and problems eating and socialising”.

Stevens agrees that starting school without teeth can be traumatic for children, but says avoiding extraction when a tooth is rotten is far worse.

“If an adult tooth grows in an area of infection - for example if you have a baby tooth that dies off and is left in place - then an adult tooth can come through poorly formed,” she says.

Thankfully, most children will not have issues with adult teeth after they’ve had rotten baby teeth taken out, but they may be more likely to need braces than their peers.

“The baby teeth work as the natural space makers for the grown up teeth coming through, so if you lose them you’re more likely to experience overcrowding or need other teeth to be taken out,” Stevens explains.

She says it’s the parents, rather than their children, who tend to find the extraction procedure distressing.

“Kids are so resilient, they bounce back, I have patients who are chatting away in the recovery room,” she says.

“I think it’s actually the parents that are more emotionally troubled by the whole thing.”

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Solveig Lister, from Surrey, knows all too well what it’s like to be told your child has tooth decay.

Her daughter Sophia, a lover of apple juice, began suffering from pain in her jaw at the age of five, despite never eating sweets.

“I nearly fainted when he told me that Sophia had serious decay in her baby teeth,” she told the Daily Mail.

“I hadn’t even noticed. I was mortified. She needed root canal work on one of her back teeth and fillings in three more. I kept thinking I must be a terrible mother to have let this happen.”

Solveig is far from the only parent blaming themselves for their child’s dental health - there are dozens of online forums packed with parents sharing feelings of guilt.

As a parent herself, Stevens says extracting teeth also affects her emotionally.

“My children are three and one now,” she explains. “When I’m seeing children lying on the operating table that are younger than my [three-year-old] daughter, I just know that we have got it so so wrong as a society.”

Having said that, Stevens is clear that she doesn’t blame parents when they bring their child in with poor dental health.

Instead, she thinks food advertisers have a lot to answer for.

“You’ve got high sugar products that are marketed at children and that’s immoral,” she insists.

“Sometimes products that are quite clearly marketed for children’s lunch boxes have more sugar than the standard equivalent.”

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Looking at the sugar content in foods you assume are healthy could be the first step towards protecting your child’s dental health.

Dr White also says parents and carers can reduce the amount of sugar in their children’s diets by offering them just milk and water to drink.

“Parents should supervise young children and encourage older children to brush their teeth with fluoride toothpaste twice a day, especially before bed, and take them to the dentist regularly,” she adds.

On a wider scale, Stevens would like to see a scheme like Scotland’s Child Smile or Wales’ Designed To Smile rolled out across England.

Both provide a nationwide service giving health visitors, midwives, nurseries and families information and support regarding the prevention of decay among children. 

“Scotland’s oral health used to be horrendous but they’ve completely reversed it and year-on-year they are improving,” Stevens says. 

While some local authorities in England are commissioning similar programmes, for example Building Brighter Smiles in Bradford, there is not a standard programme for the whole of England.

Having said that, it’s not all doom and gloom as things are slowly starting to improve.

While hospital admissions in England due to tooth decay are alarmingly high for children aged five to nine, the latest statistics from PHE suggest the number of five-year-olds with tooth decay is decreasing.

In 2008, 31% suffered tooth decay compared to 27% in 2012.

According to PHE, the statistics show “the impact parents and carers can have in establishing good dental care habits from an early age”. It seems we may be finally starting to take dental health seriously.

So with that in mind, by rethinking our diet habits, challenging junk food advertising and taking the next generation of children to the dentist before it’s too late, maybe we can beat decay for all children once and for all.

This summer The Huffington Post UK is spearheading an initiative helping families thrive, with a focus on parent wellbeing, the challenges facing stay-at-home and working parents, friendships and navigating the landscape of modern parenting beyond the 2.4. To kickstart the campaign, Jamie Oliver will be guest editor on 15 July 2016, bringing a focus on feeding healthy families.

We’ll be sharing stories and blogs with the hashtag #ThrivingFamilies and we’d like you to do the same. If you’d like to use our blogging platform to share your story, email to get involved. Jamie’s new cookbook Super Food Family Classics, published by Penguin, is on sale at £26.

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