Grandparents Under Fire for Pushing Sugar to the Grandkids

Dental caries is a significant problem. In fact, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease. One in five kids ages 2 to 5 has at least one caries lesion in his or her primary teeth. And that rate more than doubles for kids of low-socioeconomic status.1

Caries, now considered a communicable disease, can result in pain and infections, and may interfere with speaking, eating, playing, and learning.1 The more a child ingests cariogenic treats and drinks, the greater the risk of tooth decay. In addition, such a diet also puts kids at higher risk of other health concerns, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. (2)


Even when parents are mindful of everything children put into their mouths, trouble can arise. After all, they can’t keep an eye on the kids 24/7. And if alternate caretakers, such as grandma and grandpa, dole out treats like there’s no tomorrow, all hell may just break loose.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, West Virginia University, and the University of Michigan recently investigated factors influencing whether mothers communicate their concerns to grandparents who indulge children’s desire for sugar and carbs.3

From 2018 through 2020, they conducted interviews with 126 mothers of children aged 3 to 5 from Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Of the survey group, 72% of mothers reported that grandparents allowed their young kids to indulge in an abundance of foods and beverages known to cause decay. Many of the mothers surveyed were hesitant to confront their parents about the problem. Less than half were comfortable confronting in-laws.2,3

The mothers reported that the factors affecting honest communication included the strength of the intergenerational relationship, how often the grandparents see the children, whether the mom depends on them for childcare, and the quantity of cariogenic foods and beverages provided by grandparents.

The researchers concluded that any initiatives designed to decrease childhood caries should factor in family relationship dynamics, which may need to be addressed if sugar-reduction interventions are to be successful.3


Aside from the oral health tug-of-war that may be involved in convincing elder caretakers to lay off the provision of sugary treats, caries is preventable. Creative options are abundantly available. Kid-friendly electric toothbrushes, designed for little hands and mouths, often come in bright colors with fun themes and characters to make brushing more of a game than a chore. Some of these “smart” toothbrushes are interactive, play music, and coach young brushers through the daily oral care regimen.

Fluoride toothpastes are available in a range of enticing flavors, such as bubblegum and berry. Designed for children, they tend to be milder than adult versions. Interdental cleaning is another important habit to establish and should begin as soon as teeth fit closely together.

While childhood caries continues to be an ever present danger, by using the right kinds of oral health aids, techniques — and limiting sugar consumption — kid’s teeth have a fighting chance. Even when grandma can’t help herself.


  1. United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children’s Dental Health.
  2. Medscape. Grandparents Are Ruining Their Grandkids’ Teeth.
  3. Burgette JM, Lu KC, Dahl ZT, et al. Factors affecting maternal decision making about grandparents’ cariogenic dietary choices for children. J Am Dent Assoc. 2023;154:122–129.
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