Dr. Apoena Ribeiro is a pediatric dentist and microbiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s also a parent.
When her daughter was little and growing up in Brazil, Dr. Ribeiro encouraged her to enjoy a holiday called the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian, which involves children collecting large bags of candy. But she also had some strategies for keeping the dental dangers at bay.
Here’s what she did back then, and still does today, to protect her family’s oral health on a candy-laden holiday.
She minimizes grazing.
One sugar-filled night won’t sabotage your oral health, Dr. Ribeiro said — so when her daughter was young, she allowed her to collect and enjoy as much candy as she wanted on sweet-heavy holidays.
Once she’d had her fill, Dr. Ribeiro would ask her daughter to sort her candy into two piles: One for her favorites, which she called her “treasures,” and another for the rejects, which they would donate.
The “treasures” would be stashed away in a cardboard “treasure box” that could only be opened once or twice a week (though once per day is also OK, Dr. Ribeiro said). When the box was open, her daughter could eat as much candy as she wanted. But once she was done eating and it was closed, she would be cut off from the candy until the box was opened again. Then it was time to brush her teeth.
These rules prevented Dr. Ribeiro’s daughter from grazing on candy throughout the day, which could give the cavity-causing bacteria in her mouth more opportunities to feed on sugars and create an environment that could lead to tooth decay. “Free access to the candy is the main problem,” Dr. Ribeiro said.
But if the bacteria can only consume the sugar once a day or once every few days, “they will starve,” she said.
She times candy eating with meals.
The best time to have candy is with or just after a meal, Dr. Ribeiro said. At that point, the bacteria in your mouth may have already filled up on any carbohydrates from the meal, so they’re less able to take advantage of the sugar in the candy. And you produce more saliva when you eat, which helps to rinse the sugar from the candy off your teeth. It also neutralizes acids made by the bacteria that can wear away at your tooth enamel.
For most families, having candy with dinner makes the most sense, since all members are likely to be at home and can brush their teeth just after, she said.