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updated: 7/29/2013 6:25 AM

Avoiding sugary drinks can help protect young teeth

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Making a difference in a child's nutrition can be a difficult task. That's one of the reasons I focus not just on the range of solid foods that my patients eat but also on what they drink. Seemingly simple changes in the type and volume of fluids that kids choose to drink can make a big impact on their general well-being, weight and dental health.

A young couple brought their 3- and 5-year-olds in for checkups, and we reviewed dietary habits. They mentioned that they let their kids drink juice, but quickly added that they "watered it down." I congratulated them on trying to reduce their children's sugar intake.

I also pointed out that it would be preferable to serve one small cup of juice once per day rather than exposing those little teeth to a small, steady stream of sugar 24/7. What then should they offer between meals? Why, water, water and then more water. A simple, inexpensive drink that quenches thirst without loading kids up on unnecessary sugar and empty calories.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises no juice for infants younger than six months of age and recommends limiting fruit juice to 4 to 6 ounces per day for children ages 1 to 6, and offering no more than 8 to 12 ounces of fruit juice daily for kids ages 7 to 18.

While it's easy to see how sweet beverages and sugary pop can negatively affect dental health, even diet drinks may contribute to dental problems. When one of my 18-year-old patients looked over scientific data linking regular and diet pop consumption to tooth decay, her comment was "YOLO." Ah yes, my wise college-bound friend, you only live once, but wouldn't it be nice to live that one life with all of your own pearly whites?

"Sip All Day, Get Decay" is the clever catch phrase offered by the Wisconsin Dental Association. The group explains that sugar from beverages can combine with oral bacteria to form dental-damaging acid. Diet soft drinks, though sugar-free, are acidic in nature and also have the potential to damage tooth enamel.

In addition to routine dental visits, the WDA recommends keeping teeth healthy by drinking plenty of water and limiting the intake of these sugary and carbonated drinks. When such drinks are chosen, don't slowly sip them over a long period of time and avoid drinking right before bed. The dentists also suggest using a straw so teeth are not directly exposed to sugars and acids, and then taking a moment to rinse the mouth with water after finishing the drink.

Of course, dental experts always advocate regular flossing and brushing. Interestingly, many dentists also recommend waiting 30 to 60 minutes after eating or drinking before reaching for that tooth brush to avoid further damage to enamel recently coated by erosive acidic foods or beverages.

• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

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