Children as young as 18 months are having multiple rotten teeth pulled out as parents feed toddlers soft drinks through sipper bottles, and chocolate biscuits and Milo as bedtime treats.
Dentist and veteran anti-sugar lobbyist Rob Beaglehole said he pulled several teeth on Monday from an 18-month-old, and had once treated a 2-year-old who had been drinking Coke from a baby bottle. The child's teeth had dissolved down to the gum line and were bleeding.
Beaglehole, a father of two and principal dental officer for Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, recently extracted 11 teeth from a 3-year-old whose parents had let him drink Coke from a sipper bottle to "keep him happy".
Another 3-year-old needed four stainless steel crowns, had four teeth pulled and was given four fillings after the child's parents regularly put Milo in a baby bottle to sip on overnight.
These procedures, performed under general anaesthetic, should not have needed to happen, Beaglehole said.
Each year 35,000 children aged under 12 have rotten teeth extracted because of excessively sugary diets – mainly from sugary drinks and other junk foods.
Dietitian Andrea Palmer said children should drink water throughout the day, although fruit juice and other soft drinks were acceptable if they were part of a set meal and were not consumed constantly.
Children start losing their baby teeth naturally around the age of 6, but having the process fast-tracked by decay and abscesses can have dire consequences for children's schooling, and for their prospects as adults.
Struggling through school with the pain and distraction of rotting teeth could cause behavioural and development problems, while the early loss of baby teeth could cause adult teeth to grow irregularly and trigger the need for braces and other orthodontic interventions, Beaglehole said.
In its 20-year review of dental admissions to hospitals, a New Zealand Ministry of Health-commissioned report found a fourfold increase in admissions between 1990 and 2009, with the biggest spike in admissions from children aged under 8.
"Generally, the poorer you are the more holes you have and the more teeth you have missing. It's a socioeconomic disease and it's heartbreaking for everyone involved, but it's entirely preventable," Beaglehole said.
Junk food advertising had huge sway over children's diet, he said.
"Our kids are watching their sporting heroes slugging back bottles of sports drinks containing three days' worth of a child's daily recommended amount of sugar. If we want to protect our kids and address this health crisis, the first step needs to be restricting advertising.
"The junk food industries are plying their unhealthy products to children and parents, and eventually it will bring our hospital system to its knees with the diseases associated with their products."