Start establishing healthy mouth habits with your children early to reduce their chances of developing cavities.

While your baby’s first teeth might be temporary, taking an active role in setting the stage for a lifetime commitment to oral health is a task no parent should take for granted. The truth is that a child’s well-tended first teeth help ensure that there are no problems with the adult teeth that will eventually take their place. And just like adults, children need strong, healthy teeth to chew food and speak correctly, not to mention flash those first adorable, toothy smiles.

Tooth decay, the most common chronic infectious disease of childhood, presents the biggest threat to your little ones dental care. This condition occurs when a baby’s mouth is infected by acid-producing bacteria; it can also develop once the child’s teeth and gums are exposed to any liquids or foods other than water for long periods of time. The reason behind this is that natural or added sugars in liquids or foods are changed to acid by the mouths bacteria. This acid then dissolves the outer part of the teeth, causing them to decay.

So whats on the menu that could be harming your child’s teeth? From sugars to starches, there are several culprits that you should limit in your little ones diet to protect their pearly whites now and for the future.

Establishing good nutritional habits early is vital to heading off tooth decay.

Liquids in a sippy cup

Bottles and then sippy cups become a fixture in a child’s dietary routine, but prolonged use can lead directly to bathing the teeth in cavity-causing liquids such as juice, milk or carbonated beverages. In fact, tooth decay in children is also frequently referred to as baby bottle tooth decay. To head off decay, practice the following preventive tips:

  1. Never put your child to bed with a bottle of milk, formula, juice or other sugared drinks.
  2. After your child gets teeth, gently wipe the child’s mouth with a damp cloth after every feeding to clean the teeth and gums.
  3. Give your child a bottle or sippy cup filled with something other than water only during meals; limit juice to one small cup each day.
  4. Teach your child to drink from a regular cup as soon as possible, preferably by 12 to 15 months of age.
  5. If your child must have a bottle or sippy cup for long periods, fill it with water only.

Sugar, starches and snacks

Children need protein, vitamins and minerals, especially calcium and phosphorus, to build strong teeth and resist tooth decay and gum disease. Thus, it makes sense that poor diets can lead to teeth not developing properly. You should avoid feeding your child meals or snacks that are sticky or high in sugar or starch. Whether natural or processed, sugars and the foods that contain them are essentially the same to cavity causing bacteria in the mouth. Cooked starches such as breads, crackers, pasta, pretzels and potato chips can take longer to clear the mouth than sugars and carry a lengthier risk of decay. Avoid feeding your child snacks such as candy, cookies or fruit roll-ups, and instead offer them healthier options like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain pretzels/crackers or cheese, which has been shown to have characteristics that help scrub bacteria from teeth.

Establishing good nutritional habits early is vital to heading off tooth decay. Watching what children eat and how often they do it will set your little one up fora lifetime of good dental health.

Jennifer Shu, M.D. is a mother, author and board certified pediatrician based in Atlanta, Ga. A frequent guest as a medical expert on national and local television and radio shows, she is the co-author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed With Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup, and also serves as the medical editor-in-chief for the American Academy of Pediatrics consumer website, HealthyChildren.org.