Dr Jenny Kabir, head dentist and founder of the Fresh Dental Smile Clinic, offers some natural alternatives to sweet baby weaning foods to help children avoid early tooth decay.

Tooth decay now affects up to 12% of three-year-olds in England. A recent study found that most high-street weaning foods contained fewer nutrients than homemade foods, but more sugars and sweeteners.

According research published in 2013, babies would need to eat twice as much shop-bought food to get the same energy and protein as meals cooked at home. Twinned with the fact that these products contain higher levels of added sugars and sweeteners, it represents a recipe for disaster in creating children with an over sensitive ‘sweet tooth’! Add to this Public Health England (PHE) findings that more than 1 in 10 three-year-olds have tooth decay and we have a clear warning that we need to be thinking more carefully about the nutrition of our little ones.

The purpose of weaning is to begin to introduce your baby to a new and wider range of tastes, textures, and flavours to encourage them to accept different foods. Most importantly though, weaning is necessary to boost your child’s nutrient and energy intake to enable them to continue healthy development when breast milk no longer sustains them – usually from around the age of 6 months.

According to Dr Charlotte Wright, a researcher from the 2013 study, ‘babies have an innate preference for sweet foods, which might explain why sweet ingredients feature so prominently in commercial products’. PHE, however, strongly advise that parents refrain from giving their babies and children large quantities of sugary foods and drinks. It further urges mums and dads to steer clear of weaning foods with added sugar in an attempt to reduce the rapid increase of youngsters presenting with Early Childhood Caries (ECC – a particular type of tooth decay affecting the upper front teeth, linked to the consumption of sugary drinks in baby bottles or sipping cups).

With that in mind, here are some natural alternatives to ‘sweet’ high-street weaning products that you can make quickly and easily at home.

First Foods

As it’s a fact that babies do have a natural preference for sweeter foods, but this doesn’t mean you have to give them foods which are unhealthy. Try sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, apples or pears. Just cook each food in the usual way (stew or steam the apples and pears), mash or pop them in a blender to puree, leave to cool and serve. Mashed bananas and avocados have also been reported to go down well with little ones just starting out on ‘solid’ foods.

Seven to Nine Months

Gluten free cereals like maize and millet are safe to introduce from 6 months. Be cautious with wheat-based products and introduce them slowly after the first month or so of weaning. Things like porridge and the occasional low-sugar homemade rusk will help your baby begin to get used to more solid textures. As more teeth start to erupt, you can start to introduce raw fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber, and sweet peppers. Pureed meats or fish mixed with vegetables are also a great meal to try (watch out for bones if your decide to try fish!).

Nine to Twelve Months

By this stage its highly likely that your baby will have progressed from the initial one ‘solid’ meal a day onto breakfast, lunch and dinner with milk or formula in between. With more teeth to work with and the development of better dexterity you’re baby will no doubt enjoy foods that they can feed themselves. Things like plain bread sticks and rice cakes are ideal for snacking; low in sugar content they provide a healthier regular snack option than sweetened, shop bought rusks and biscuits.

Of course, even with all the best intentions, it’s highly likely that the chaos raising children creates is bound to land you in a situation where you’re caught short somewhere! Or there may just be days when you simply don’t have the time to prepare, cook, puree, cool and serve an incredible, natural, homemade delight! Don’t worry; like anything, moderation is key – a couple of rusks or jars of prepared baby food in an emergency won’t hurt, just try not to rely on them for daily snacking.

A good tip when making your own foods at home is that you can cook and puree in large quantities. Cook up a big batch of your latest creation, separate it into portions and freeze; the next time you’re strapped for time you only need to defrost and serve!

It is crucial to remember, through all of this, that dental hygiene is paramount to good oral health. PHE recommend that parents and carers introduce tooth brushing to their children as soon as the first tooth appears and continue to supervise their child’s brushing routine until the age of seven or eight. Dr Christopher Allen, of the British Dental Association, reiterates;

“It’s never too soon to take your toddler to the dentist – ideally no later than 18 months – because dentists can identify and treat tooth decay at the earliest stage and advise parents on tooth brushing and prevention.”

About the Author: Dr Jenny Kabir is the head dentist and founder of the Fresh Dental Smile Clinic. Jenny has a strong and well respected reputation within the dental industry amongst both patients and peers. She was one of the youngest dentists to be awarded the DPDS (3 year postgraduate diploma) from Bristol University and has successfully established Fresh Dental as a leading clinic in York; providing unparalleled patient care with the latest, highest quality dentistry available today. Outside of work, Jenny enjoys spending time with her two young children and family.