By: Dr. Katherine Ahn, DDS
Did you know that approximately 35% of Orange County kindergartners have untreated tooth decay? Many people are surprised to learn that oral health issues are the most common, chronic childhood illness. In fact, they are five times more prevalent than asthma and seven times more prevalent than allergies. But, unlike asthma and allergies, oral health issues are almost entirely preventable!
For many parents, there is a natural tendency to focus on the necessity of immunization and preventive health measures for their children. These are all extremely important, of course. But often overlooked in their children’s formative years is how critically essential early and regular dental care is to long-term dental health, childhood development, and overall health.
Hold on a minute, you may be thinking: Baby teeth fall out. Why then, is dental health for children ages 0 – 5 so important? Glad you asked. According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, children with healthy mouths can chew easier and learn to speak more quickly. It is recommended that children make their first visit to the dentist when their first tooth appears, usually around six months of age. The health of primary teeth (also known as baby teeth), and the mouth in general, early on is critical to the growth and development of the child. At these first visits, pediatric dentists will not only look for dental health issues but also for healthy development of the teeth and jaw.
Also, an emphasis on proper nutrition during these early years can significantly reduce dental decay and other oral health issues. For babies, breast milk is the most beneficial form of nourishment because it provides the necessary nutrients for strong, healthy, well-formed teeth. Proper breastfeeding also is essential to the development of the upper palate. Harmful habits such as thumb-sucking, pacifier and bottle use can also affect the shape of the palate. A narrow, high palate can contribute to malocclusion (misaligned teeth and jaw), speech problems, decreased nasal airway, sleep apnea, TMD (jaw disorder), and ear infection. As children begin to eat solid foods, the food choices we make are extremely important in supporting the development of strong teeth and preventing tooth decay. Not surprisingly, diets high in sugar and starches place children at greater risk for tooth decay. A balanced diet will go a long way toward helping teeth and healthy gum tissue to develop properly.
For more than a decade, the Children and Families Commission of Orange County has been a leading advocate for regular, accessible dental health services for children from birth to 5 years old. As a founding partner of Healthy Smiles for Kids of Orange County, a collaborative effort involving the Commission and CHOC Children’s Hospital of Orange County, the Commission helped create and fund a comprehensive pediatric health and dental center. Last year, the Commission approved a catalytic investment of up to $20 million to expand and support Healthy Smiles and the countywide Pediatric Dental Care Collaborative. Because of this investment, the program is able to provide urgent, preventive, and operative dental care at seven community clinics, two of which are mobile vans. Services include screenings, sealants and fluoride treatments, parent education, caregiver training, and treatment for oral disease and decay.
As we focus on dental health all year long, we wanted to provide a few helpful tips to ensure that your child’s smile and mind stay bright:
- Take your child to the dentist upon the appearance of their first tooth and for regular appointments every six months thereafter.
- Brush at least 2 minutes twice a day and floss once a day. And don’t neglect to brush the tongue, which can harbor bacteria.
- Discourage thumb-sucking as it could lead to oral health issues.
- Breastfeeding is encouraged as it provides the best nutritional benefits and helps with proper oral development.
- Avoid sharing food and utensils. Decay promoting bacteria from a parent can transfer to the child.
- Limit in-between-meal snacks and fruit juice drinks and instead increase the amount of water your child drinks. In addition to water being essential to their health, it also helps to keep the mouth clean and washes out bacteria and sugar.
- Avoid putting your child to bed right after nursing or giving them any sort of sweetened liquid including milk or juice. Any unswallowed liquid in the mouth feeds bacteria that produces acids and attack the teeth.
- Most important of all, lead by example! Your children look to you for guidance – and by stressing the importance of dental health early on, they will be more likely to maintain the care of their teeth as they grow.
For more information about the Children and Families Commission of Orange County, please visit www.occhildrenandfamilies.com.
Dr. Katherine Ahn, DDS is a Commissioner of the Children and Families Commission of Orange County and is in private practice in Huntington Beach, California.