Healthy body

Sweets, fizzy drinks and bottles

Picture of a boy brushing his teeth Credit:

Lolkaphoto / Thinkstock

10 tips for parents on the top causes of tooth decay in children, and how to avoid them.

Establishing good habits can help your child avoid oral health problems, such as tooth decay and gum disease.

Can I let my child have sweets?

Most children want sweets, but you can help to prevent problems by making sure they don't have a large amount or very often, and particularly not before bed, when saliva flow lessens. 

Try not to give sweets or sweet drinks as rewards.

What are the best snacks to give my child?

The best snacks are fruit and raw vegetables. Try tangerines, bananas, pieces of cucumber or carrot sticks.

Other good snacks include toast, rice cakes and plain popcorn.

Dried fruit is high in sugar and can be bad for teeth, so only ever give it to children with meals – for instance, as a dessert – and never as a snack between meals.

The NHS Change4Life website has tips and ideas for cutting down on sugary foods and drinks.

Should I let my child have fizzy drinks?

No. Fizzy drinks can contain large amounts of sugar, which will increase the risk of tooth decay.

Fizzy drinks (both those containing sugar and sugar-free or "diet" versions) also contain acids that can erode the outer surface of the tooth.

Find out how to cut back on sugary drinks with these simple drink swaps on the NHS Change4Life website.

What are the best drinks for my child's teeth?

The best drinks for children over 1 year old are plain still water or plain milk.

Your child should have full-fat milk (whole milk) from the age of 12 months to 2 years.

Semi-skimmed milk can be introduced from the age of 2, as long as your child is a good eater and growing well for their age.

Skimmed milk can be given to children aged 5 and over. 

Cow's milk is not suitable as a drink for babies under 12 months of age.

The Change4Life website has lots of tips and swap ideas for healthier drink options.

Is it OK to drink fruit juice or smoothies?

Even unsweetened juices and smoothies contain sugars and acids, so although they can contribute towards their 5 A Day, restrict your child to no more than 1 small glass (about 150ml) of fruit juice or smoothie each day and only at mealtimes.

Also, be aware that unsweetened 100% fruit juice, vegetable juice and smoothies can only ever count as a maximum of 1 portion of their 5 A Day.

For example, if they have 2 glasses of fruit juice and a smoothie in 1 day, that still only counts as 1 portion. 

If your child is thirsty, it's better to give them water than to encourage a taste for sweet drinks. 

Try to avoid giving babies fruit-flavoured "baby juices", and never give them in feeding bottles. Fruit juice should not be given to babies under 6 months.

Read more about healthy drinks to give your children.

Will milk at bedtime damage my child's teeth?

Teeth are at most risk at night because there's less saliva in the mouth to protect them.

Water is the best drink to give at bedtime, but if you do give milk, don't add anything to it. 

Chocolate-flavoured drinks and milkshake powder usually contain sugars, which will increase the risk of decay.

Are sugar-free medicines better for my child's teeth?

Yes. Always ask if a sugar-free medicine is available and remind your doctor about this if you're being given a prescription for your child.

This is especially important if your child is taking long-term medication.

When should my child give up bottles?

Your child should begin moving off the bottle and on to a free-flow feeder cup at 6 months.

Try to get them off bottles completely by the age of 1, because the teats and spouts encourage children to suck for long periods of time, meaning the drinks that cause tooth decay stay in contact with your child's teeth for a long time.

Are sippy cups good for teeth?

There's no need for a child to use a sippy cup. They're similar to a bottle in that they require the child to suck to make them work.

A free-flow feeder cup is better, as it doesn't have valves and the flow of liquid is unrestricted.

This means that children learn to drink normally rather than by sucking. 

Read more about cups for children.

Will a dummy or thumb sucking harm my child's teeth?

No, but they will encourage an open bite, which is when teeth move to make space for the dummy or thumb.

They may also affect speech development. That's why you should avoid using dummies after your child reaches 12 months old. 

Thumb sucking won't cause permanent problems as long as the habit stops by the time your child gets their second teeth, but it can be a hard habit to break. 

Discourage your children from talking or making sounds with their thumb or a dummy in their mouth, and don't dip dummies in anything sweet, such as sugar or jam.

Read more about how to care for your child's teeth.

Common dental Q&As

Read the answers to common questions about NHS dentistry.

Page last reviewed: 25/11/2015
Next review due: 26/11/2018