• July 6, 2011
  • Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Ask any mother you know. Before we had kids, we swore we would breastfeed till they went to school (ok, for as long as we could, but some people do take that quite literally) and would NEVER give our kids junk food of any kind, chocolate, sugar, lollies, or any nutritionally non-essential crap out there! Then, we had our babies and breastfed “as long as we could”. No, it wasn’t until they started school, it was until it became completely impractical and impossible to juggle work, expressing, motherly duties AND our own bodily needs. Then, the kids grew into little ‘scanners’ of all things ‘bad and dangerous’. We can no longer hide from them what is out there, strategically placed on the supermarket check out counter, vying for their attention and easily accessible to their little hands! Everyone of us has lost at least one battle with our own selves, succumbing to the supermarket tantrum and forever being bound to regularly provide this product for the rest of their childhood. We suffer privately, but think to ourselves:”Hey, I’d rather give this ‘NEVER’ up then be stared at by the whole supermarket and all the passers by peering into the supermarket to see where all that noise is coming from!” 

As a Dentist, I can say that while I’m not entirely opposed to sweets, some are less damaging to our kids’ teeth than others. So, do I think it’s okay for children to have some sweets in moderation? Yes, but it’s essential to be mindful of the types of sweets and how often they’re consumed.

When my three year old asked for a lollipop for the first time recently, I was stunned. Until that point, she had had hardly any supermarket confectionery and we had definitely never even mention the word “lollipop” in our house. Where did she get that from? As it turns out, another child at daycare brought lollipops as treats for all of the kids on her birthday. My daughter also got a lollipop, but the poor thing forgot to eat it before mummy came to pick her up. As you can imagine, the argument that ensued between us was fierce! No matter how much she cried and screamed and stomped the floor, I did not give in! There was no way she was having this lollipop. So, how did I get her to stop her tantrum and throw out the lollipop? I promised I would buy her a hand-made belgian chocolate (which has since become the number 2 slave master of  poor yours truly) from the chocolatier down the road, of course! What I did that day may have been a less than ideal way to manage her behaviour, but as far as her teeth go, I actually replaced a pretty ‘bad’ sweet with a not so bad one. So, what is the truth about sweets and kids teeth?

Most sweets are not that good for our kids’ dental health or in general. Most confectionery products also contain artificial flavours, colours, preservatives and acids, as well as sugar. However, some things that are good for you, luckily, also taste great. THE BEST example of a guilt free sweet is yoghurt. Even sweetened yoghurt is so saturated with calcium that it rebuilds teeth as quickly as they get demineralized by bacteria. Another great feature of most yoghurts is the certain type of bacteria they contain: Lactobacillus Casei, which apparently destroys tooth-decay-causing bacteria.

Even the low-sugar cookies or the ones sweetened with sugar alternatives contain carbohydrates in the form of starches. If sticky cookies are allowed to sit on kids’ teeth long enough, these starches eventually become broken down and ingested by the tooth-decay causing bacteria, essentially becoming the sugar in the ‘sugar-free’ cookie. Combining the cookie with a glass of milk counteracts some of the effect of this sugar with the abundant calcium in milk.

High quality chocolate is usually lower in sugar than the low-quality variety. Milk chocolate has more calcium than dark chocolate, but usually also has more sugar. Boiled sweets, jelly beans and other lolly varieties are usually made of mostly glucose (simple sugar) in its various forms. Cocoa is a nut and it is relatively tooth friendly. 

A small piece of chocolate will spend less than a minute in a child’s mouth. In my daughter’s case it is exactly 3.5 seconds. Add to that the time it takes for the mouth to recover back to the neutral pH, which is about 7 minutes and you get about 8-10 minutes of total sugar exposure. 
Now, let’s consider a lollIpop. It seems small enough, but it is a hardboiled sweet on a stick, really! I don’t think I could dissolve one of those in less than 10 minutes, let alone a child whose head is only slightly larger than those things! So, let’s say they are sucking machines and they polish the lollipop in 10mins. Add another 7mins for mouth to neutralize and you get a minimum exposure to sugar of 17 mins!!! That is almost double the duration of sugar exposure with a small hand-made chocolate! This is not even taking into account that most times, towards the end, the lollipop will get chewed up and the little crystals are then nicely wedged inside the biting surfaces of little teeth, slowly dissolving away…sustained sugar release which can last a while, feeding the tooth decay causing bacteria, which in turn are ‘feasting’ on our children’s teeth. “So what, they can brush their teeth afterwards”, you say? Well, even though this is not the best preventative method, I would concede it would be acceptable, provided these are rare occasions. Do your kids carry toothbrushes and toothpaste with them wherever they go? Because, these ‘rare’ occasions in preschoolers can easily turn into regular ‘lunch-swaps’ at school and our babies quickly grow into teenagers, buying their own snacks at the corner store. 

Children need to know why some sweets are worse than others, so that they can opt for the better alternatives. My daughter now says to anyone who asks about them that “lollipops are bad for your teeth” and she does not want them. By ‘banning’ lollipops and other lollies at our house, I am teaching my daughter that she can still have sweet treats that are less bad for her teeth, so that one day, when faced with a choice, she can choose her own “tooth friendly” alternative. In the meantime, while I am responsible, I hope to preserve her teeth in best health for as long as possible, even if it means swapping a lollipop for a hand-made delicacy every now and then.  That doesn’t make me a bad mother, does it? 
Oh, by the way, before you call me a “lolly hater”, there are xylitol-containing lollipops out there, which are actually good for kids’ teeth. Here, I was writing about the stock-standard supermarket confectionary. If you would like to know about different lollies which are actually good for kids’ teeth, please contact us on 92326367 or email tijana@ and we can order some for you. 

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh
About The Author

Dr. Catherine-Anne Walsh

Catherine-Anne is a New Zealand-qualified dentist. She holds a Masters Degree in Public Health from Sydney University and she has a broad range of experiences from working in both the public and private sector.


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