For dentists, Halloween is a nightmare. Despite pleas to kids to eat sweets sparingly all year round, children are allowed one night a year to stockpile sugary treats, accruing enough candy to supply a small drugstore.
Still, dentists understand the unbridled joy this holiday brings, and encourage parents to let their children enjoy themselves (in moderation, of course). We spoke to a couple of dentists to get their take on the holiday. Here are their suggestions for parents around Halloween.
Make Halloween a special occasion
Help your kids to understand that Halloween is a once-a-year event, and that the usual rules for eating sweets are suspended for one night. “I talk to parents about treats being treats—something you don’t get all the time” says American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) President and Twin Cities-based dentist Dr. James Nickman. “Even a caramel or a Starburst on a rare special occasion is not going to be harmful. But candy should not be a go-to snack in the house.”
Buy chocolate or other small gifts
When buying sweets to give out to trick-or-treaters, opt for candies that can be gobbled quickly and won’t linger in kids’ mouths, such as miniature chocolate bars. “Go for candy that melts away or is quickly consumed,” Nickman says. “Dark chocolates are best, as they have less sugar.” Bonus: chocolates like Junior Mints and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are among the most popular kinds of candy handed out.
The doctors we spoke to have given out coloring books, stickers, pencils, and, yes, toothbrushes in lieu of candy at their own homes—though many of the toothbrushes ended up discarded on their lawns.
Screen your kids’ candy hauls
When your kids return home with their hauls, ask to inspect the loot to ensure nothing appears to have been tampered with, then stealthily remove the particularly tooth-unfriendly stuff. Discard the hard, sticky, gooey and other kinds of candies that stay in the mouth for a long time, which increases the risk for tooth decay. “The longer the sugar is in contact with the teeth, the greater the saturation time and the likelier the breakdown of enamel,” says Dr. Eric Wiitala a dentist based in Scottsdale, AZ. That means throwing away sugared fruit snacks, Now or Laters, lollipops, and gummi bears, to name a few.
Parents of children with orthodontia should be especially mindful of taffy candies, as chewing on these can pull braces brackets off teeth.
Let the kids gorge Halloween Eve
Feed your kids a healthy dinner before or after trick-or-treating, which will help limit the amount of candy they eat. But allow for a one-time free-for-all on the acceptable candy, encouraging your child to eat a small amount in one sitting. “Halloween Eve is the big gorge night, Nickman says. “Let them eat what they’re going to eat. One night of indulgence is not going to put the kid over the edge.” This strategy also limits the amount of time spent eating candy, therefore restricting the amount of time sugar is spent on teeth, compared with hours and even days of regular candy-eating.
Tell your kids to drink more water
Always a healthy practice, drinking more water after eating sugary treats is a particularly good dental habit. “Water is neutralizer of acidic and sugary foods,” Wiitala says. “Ph-neutral water or water with more alkaline is best.”
Take away their candy
Have your kids pick out a favorite candy or two and then confiscate the rest. “In our house, we used to make a big deal of sending the remaining treats to the Halloween Fairy,” Nickman says. “That way it’s gone and out of the house. That worked with our kids until they were about 7 or 8. Then they figured it out.”
Investigate whether any local dentist offices have buy-back or drop-off programs for Halloween candy, or donate the candy to organizations such as Operation Gratitude, which sends it to troops overseas.
If you decide to let them keep the candy in the house, dole it out to your kids judiciously, and only for a limited time. Also, only allow them to eat candy after meals. “Don’t let your kids graze on the candy,” Wiitala says. “Have them eat it right after mealtime (lunch or dinner) when there’s an excess of saliva to naturally cleanse the mouth.”
Remember: candy is not a snack.
Avoid becoming a Halloween horror story
Both dentists have experience with kids victimized by Halloween treats.
“It’s always interesting the day after,” Nickman says. “I’ve had family come in with kids’ crowns embedded caramels.”
“One child got his two front upper teeth come out and get stuck in a caramel apple,” Wiitala says. “I told him to take the teeth out and enjoy the rest of the apple.”