Thousands of children are having large numbers of their milk teeth removed in hospital at a very early age because they are so badly decayed.
People will be encouraged to take up good dental health habits
A survey conducted for BBC Radio 4's Today programme indicates the problem is worst in Scotland, with north-west England and Wales also badly affected.
An audit of Glasgow Dental Hospital included a one-year-old. and a four-year-old who had all their teeth out.
Dentists blame poor diet - especially
sugary drinks in feeding bottles.
Public health dentists say the research indicates about 2,000 children aged five or under are having multiple extractions in Glasgow alone every year - with an average of between seven and eight teeth removed each time.
Some children have to have all 20 milk teeth taken out.
David McCall, a consultant in dental public health in Glasgow, said: "It is a large number of children that are needing to have a general anaesthetic to require teeth to be removed for what is a preventable disease."
Another black spot was Sheffield, where the local children's hospital carries out a complete extraction of milk teeth on one child a week, and removes an average of six from 24 others.
Rates of decay have been fuelled by an increase in sugars in the diet, and poor dental hygiene.
Eating a diet rich in sugar and starch increases the risk of tooth decay.
Preventing tooth decay
Clean your teeth at least twice a day to prevent any plaque build up
Use a toothpaste containing fluoride
Rinse out the mouth after eating sticky foods
Have a regular dental check up
Sticky foods can be a particular problem because they are more likely to remain on the surface of the teeth.
Frequent snacking also increases the amount of time that acids are in contact with the teeth.
And once the structure of a tooth has been damaged by decay, there is no way to repair it.
The Today programme research indicated that cases of multiple extraction of milk teeth are less common in areas where the water supply is fluoridated.
Some might argue that the loss of milk teeth is not a serious problem, as they fall out anyway.
However, dentists who are presented with children in severe pain with rotten teeth and infected mouths do not see it that way.
Hilary Whitehead, of East Lancashire Community Dental Service, was shocked by two children aged just over two years old who she treated on the same day.
"I think they had been mainly drinking from a bottle, they had not really had a lot of weaning.
"They were tiny, just like babies. It was really awful. One had about eight teeth out, and the other had about six.
"They had come to the clinics because they were in pain, they had abscesses on their teeth. They were really suffering.
"I really feel it is child abuse."
Paul Burstow MP, Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "The chronic shortage of dentists taking on new NHS patients means that people are getting out of the habit of going to the dentist and so tooth decay is not being picked up early enough.
"The opportunity for parents and children to be educated about the dangers of tooth decay and the importance of good brushing is also being lost." "Ministers must urgently tackle the shortage of dentists and listen to dentists' concerns. They should be educating parents and children about the dangers of fizzy drinks and the importance of good dental health."
But Professor Raman Bedi, the government's chief dental adviser said England was at the top of the European league for child dental health.
However he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "I think this is a good news story, but we are not complacent.
"We know there is a hard core of children who do need to have extra help."
He said the key was persuading parents to use fluoride toothpaste for their children and stopping the use of feeding bottles.
Who is responsible for the state of children's teeth? Send us your comments by using a form below.
The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:
This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.
Having two children of my own I definitely feel that the fault lies with parents. When out and about I regularly see 2-4 year olds with a baby bottle or spouted drinking cup full of sugary juice (orange, blackcurrant etc). It keeps the child quiet and for some that's all that counts. Both of my children 3 and 8 brush their teeth twice daily (finished off by one or other parent) and attend the dentist every six months. There will always be the exception to the rule when a child has very soft teeth, however, even this can be controlled with regular dental check ups. Come on parents - do your bit!
Amanda Hunter, Musselburgh, Scotland
Only you as a parent are responsible for what your young child eats or drinks. Surely a pre school child requires your help with teeth cleaning as with dressing and bathing. Imagine the pain these children must have been in. There is also the uncommon issue that not all children have second teeth.
Anita Reynolds, Zurich Switzerland
It's hardly surprising when you look at the poor distribution of NHS dentists. I have to take my children 25 miles to the nearest Dentist who is willing to take on NHS patients .
Mr Wells, Devon
I was absolutely appalled after reading your article on the prevalence of tooth decay in (presumably) the under 5's. A tube of toothpaste costs less than £1, for goodness sakes. I agree with last comment that was made by a dentist who had just treated two 2 year olds. I do think that neglecting your child's teeth, health and general wellbeing is child abuse. Small children have to learn from adults how to take care of themselves, obviously its not happening!
Audrey Hopkins, Glasgow, Scotland
As the mother of a one-year old, I am shocked to see children on their way to school snacking on crisps and chocolate bars (and parents often sit right next to their snacking off-spring). What about breakfast at home? There is so much that could be done: better school dinners, nutrition and cookery classes for all pupils (and preferably most parents).
Most dentists are going private in the area and as such will not register children if their parents are not registered
Mr Alex Van-Minnen, York, Yorkshire
I have a 4 year old and you could count on one hand, the amount of times she has had a fizzy drink. She drinks milk, water and juice. And with the juices, we always look at the sugar content. My wife and I hardly ever have fizzy drinks either. You do not have to be a dentist to associate fizzy drinks with tooth decay, just a responsible parent.
Dave Scarlett, Heidelberg, Germany
Parents should exercise more common sense. What is wrong with putting plain old water in babies' bottles? Also, if parents had more control over their children they wouldn't need to give them sweets to keep them quiet. My sister and I were only allowed sweets once a week when we visited our grandparents and it was a proper treat!
Natalie Doncaster, Peterborough, UK
Both lack of education about the damaging effects of sugary drinks in bottles and a lot of parents unwillingness to seek out available education information and advice is once again to blame. It appears to be easier to give in to children's desire to have sweets all the time. My child is 61/2 years old, has not had any teeth extracted and is only just beginning to loose her milk teeth naturally. This in the end I believe is down to a good diet and encouraging her to brush her teeth every day.
Good mouth hygiene starts at an early age. I have two children (20 and 16 years of age) who do not have one filling. They weren't given too many sweet, fizzy drinks when they were babies and young children. Always brushed their teeth when they were small, and so the habit is always there. The reason that I did it was I have many fillings and I know the pain that tooth ache can cause and I didn't want them too suffer as I did.
Sandra Waldron, London
The Government is to blame. There is a lack of NHS dentists, due to its poor policy/funding of the service. If the parents do not have checkups and advice, what chance do the children have.
Steve Edwards, Gloucester, England
Parents and carers are to blame for the shocking state of their children's teeth. To blame the government, food manufacturers, TV ads, busy lives or anything else is just an attempt to absolve of responsibility those who have actual control over children's diet. They just can't be bothered to make an effort.
John Cahill, London, UK