February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, yet many people fail to understand why dental health is so important for children.
Tooth decay is the most common, chronic childhood disease in the U.S. In fact, it’s five times more common than asthma. It causes kids to miss 51 million school hours and their parents to lose 25 million work hours annually. It also impacts children’s self-esteem, concentration and social development, so dental disease should not be ignored.
The good news is that simple things, like brushing your children’s teeth for two minutes twice a day and visiting your dentist regularly, can help greatly decrease the risk of painful cavities and other dental disease.
In children with special health care needs, regular brushing is also critical to help ease the effects that some medication may have on their dental health. Always supervise children while brushing to make sure they are using the right amount of toothpaste (and that they spit it out when done). Help them brush and make sure they’re not doing it too hard. To learn more about the right amount of fluoride toothpaste to use, visit MouthHealthy.org and read the section called, “Cleaning Your Child’s Teeth.” You can also watch this video to “brush up” on how to brush.
Need to infuse some fun into it brushing? Keep it entertaining by playing these helpful, two minute long videos from 2min2x.org. The Children’s Oral Health campaign, created by the Ad Council and Partnership for Healthy Mouths, Healthy Lives (a coalition of more than 35 dental health organizations), includes a mobile game and downloadable sticker chart that kids and parents can use to help with regular brushing.
Regular visits to the dentist are also critical to keeping dental health on track. Kids with a dental home are more likely to receive the right kind of appropriate and regular care that can minimize their risk of preventable dental disease.
Find your child’s dental home by talking with your dentist to learn whether he or she can treat special health care needs children or if he or she recommends any colleagues. Your child’s physician may also have recommendations or you can try the Special Care Dentistry Association’s Online Referral System. There may also be low or no-cost dental service programs that a local dental school or your state or local dental association may be coordinating in your area, so try contacting them for more information.
During your child’s visit, make sure to share any previous dental history, plus a comprehensive, updated medical history with the dentist; it’s really important for the exam and creating a treatment plan for at home care in between dental visits.
A dental exam will include a comprehensive exam of the head, neck and mouth, routine teeth cleaning, and assessing the risk of cavities, plus other dental health issues. Then, the dentist will discuss and provide a written treatment plan that you can follow at home.
Many special needs children will be highly sensitive to the bright dental light, the sounds of the dental drill or smells unique to the dental office. For some patients, even the feeling of the patient napkin can be very unsettling. These should all be discussed with parents or caregivers to determine how to slowly introduce these new experiences to the patient.
Desensitization techniques frequently work best when family and caregivers are involved in the process, reinforcing the activities at home. The procedure can first be modeled on the caregiver or a mannequin. Progress slowly and practice each of the steps individually. There must be plenty of positive reinforcement, and simple rewards are often beneficial. Pictures or videos can be useful. The process works best when practiced in a nonthreatening environment, not the dental operatory. Give the family some props to use so the individual can practice at home. These may include exam gloves, a suction tube, face mask, plastic mouth mirror, x-ray film, disposable polishing cup or patient napkin.
As a dentist who has been working with special health care needs families for more than 25 years, I can personally tell you how special it is to see the healthy smiles that are the result of committing to taking better care of your families’ dental health.
Happy National Children’s Dental Health Month. I hope you’ll all celebrate with me by grabbing your toothbrushes and making some time to brush with the ones you love.