You probably remember seeing commercials for milk during every cartoon when you were growing up. Every celebrity (and some animated characters) showed off their milk mustaches in an effort to encourage children to drink more milk. It wasn’t propaganda. These ads served a very real purpose.
Pediatricians work hard to emphasize the importance of calcium for toddlers and children, and milk is an easily accessible source of calcium for many families. Children need calcium to build strong bones and teeth. Without enough calcium, your child’s teeth may suffer.
How Does Calcium Support Tooth Health?
Calcium is the mineral your body uses to build hard and strong teeth and bones. Teeth are made of calcium, and they need calcium both inside and out to stay in good shape. Calcium supports the internal structure of the tooth, keeping the tooth solid and making it easier to chew.
Calcium also works with other minerals to support the teeth from the outside. When you eat foods that contain calcium, calcium circulates in your saliva and washes over your teeth, giving them a calcium bath. The calcium can even bond to your tooth enamel, helping to repair weak spots that might lead to cavities.
What Happens to Teeth When You Don’t Get Enough Calcium?
When you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body looks for calcium anywhere it can find it. It will take calcium from bones and teeth to circulate it through the blood so the calcium can perform its other functions of supporting the body. This calcium gets used up and isn’t replenished. The end result is weak and brittle bones and teeth.
Tooth enamel never grows back — the enamel you’re born with is the enamel you’ll have for the rest of your life, and it’s the only thing protecting your child’s teeth from bacteria, germs, and decay.
Tooth enamel needs minerals like calcium to fortify itself. It can use calcium as an extra layer of protection to repair weak spots as they begin to appear. Lack of calcium can cause tooth decay. It may begin as cavities and slowly escalate until the only way to save a tooth is through a root canal procedure.
Cavities and tooth decay in toddlers or children can be life-threatening if left untreated. Infection can spread throughout the body and erode the jawbone. The situation is very serious. The only silver lining is that a destroyed baby tooth will eventually be replaced by an adult tooth. When your child’s permanent teeth come in, there are no second chances.
Proper dental hygiene practice is important. Toothpaste is fortified with minerals your child needs to strengthen their teeth from the outside. The minerals in toothpaste are more effective than the minerals in food when it comes to fortifying weak spots in the enamel. Make sure your children know how to properly brush their teeth, and keep your bathroom stocked with high-quality remineralizing toothpaste.
Is Calcium Deficiency Common?
Children in the developed world are at low risk for developing mineral or vitamin deficiencies. They’re fortunate enough to have access to a wide variety of foods that contain all the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.
Even though it’s rare, calcium deficiency can still occur. The cause of calcium deficiency is almost never a lack of calcium in the diet — instead, calcium deficiency is tied strongly to vitamin D deficiency. Without vitamin D, the body can’t properly utilize or absorb calcium, meaning that even if you eat a lot of calcium, your body can’t actually do anything with it.
Vitamin D deficiency is what parents really need to be mindful of. Many pediatricians recommend vitamin D supplements for premature or breastfed babies to help them absorb the calcium they need. Vitamin D is also added to foods that are fortified with calcium, as well as bread and cereals. Vitamin D is also added to many children’s multivitamins — if you suspect that your child may be low on vitamin D or other nutrients, it’s best to consult your pediatrician to see if a multivitamin may be recommended.
How Much Calcium Does a Child Need?
Calcium is important for growing and maintaining strong bones and teeth, and calcium needs increase with age. The body needs more calcium to support larger bones, and if it can’t get it through diet, it will take the calcium from bones and teeth.
General guidelines for calcium intake for children are as follows:
- One to three years old - 700 mg of calcium daily
- Four to eight years old - 1,000 mg of calcium daily
- Nine to 18 years old - 1,300 mg of calcium daily
It’s important to keep an eye on calcium intake if your child breaks a bone. If your child needs any more or less calcium, your pediatrician will let you know. If they’re getting enough, their normal recommended amount of dietary calcium is all they’ll need to help their bones heal.
How Can You Help Your Kids Get Enough Calcium?
Most families will find it relatively simple to incorporate enough calcium-rich foods into their diets. You may not have to do anything differently — just keep an eye on the servings you give your child throughout the day to make sure they’re getting enough calcium-rich foods and drinks.
Dairy Makes It Easy
Almost all dairy products in the United States are made with vitamin D-fortified milk. Milk is naturally rich in calcium, and the added vitamin D helps the body utilize the calcium.
Give your child a glass of low-fat milk with breakfast and lunch, or let them snack on low-fat string cheese and yogurt.
Be Mindful of Dairy Alternatives
When you see pediatricians recommending foods like low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt for calcium intake, they’re only referring to the dairy varieties. Non-dairy milk alternatives, like oat milk, almond milk, rice milk, and coconut milk, may not contain meaningful amounts of calcium or trace minerals unless they’re fortified.
Fortified plant-based milk alternatives often contain substantial amounts of calcium, but they generally don’t contain vitamin D. Since the body needs vitamin D to absorb the calcium, you’ll likely need to find another way to incorporate vitamin D into your child’s diet.
This doesn’t mean you have to kiss those dairy alternatives goodbye, though! Many parents in plant-based households incorporate vitamin D supplements into their child’s daily routines to make up for the lack of vitamin D in dary alternatives.
Serve Up Some Veggies
Soy, beans, leafy greens, seeds, and nuts are all excellent sources of naturally occurring plant-based calcium. If you have a nut or soy allergy in your household, it’s obviously best to keep some of these foods off the table, but greens and lentils are still versatile choices.
Picky eaters may have a tough time navigating greens, but if you keep introducing new foods and serving up greens, your little one just might come around in the end. Brag about how much you like them and how all the cool adults eat them every day, and you’re sure to get your child on board.
It’s More Than Just Calcium
Calcium is one of many things your child’s teeth need to stay healthy, and the real magic combination is calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus. These three all work together to help support tooth enamel, and it’s important that your child gets a sufficient amount of each mineral and vitamin.
Fortified dairy, fortified juice, fortified bread, fortified cereal, fatty fish, and eggs contain vitamin D. Phosphorus can be found in dairy, meat, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts, but it’s worth noting that phosphorus from plant-based foods is slightly harder for the body to process and use. If you live in a plant-based or vegetarian household, you’ll want to be mindful of trace mineral intake.
The Final Word on Calcium Deficiency and Teeth
Calcium is an extremely important part of maintaining healthy teeth, but it’s only one small piece of the puzzle. Without vitamin D and phosphorus, calcium won’t be able to fortify your child’s teeth. Make sure your child is getting everything they need for optimal tooth and bone health.
No matter how much of each mineral your child gets, it won’t make up for poor dental hygiene practices. Supervise your little one when they brush and make sure they’re thorough — a fun, colorful toothbrush with a timer may be the perfect incentive to keep them brushing for as long as they need to.