Healthy Smiles

National Children's Dental Health Month

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The McGrinn Twins are back. Flossy and Buck McGrinn, along with Den and Gen Smiley, are reminding kids "A Healthy Smile? It's Easy to Find! Remember to brush and floss every day!"

National Children's Dental Health Month is a campaign of the American Dental Association (ADA). This year the ADA is not only using the McGrinn Twins to educate young children about dental health, but reminding pre-teens and teens that "healthy smiles look good up close."

Dental health is not only about having a pretty smile. The health of one's teeth is integral to many aspects of overall health. For example, your mouth is full of bacteria. Although most of this bacteria is harmless, the bacteria that is harmful has the tendency to grow out of control, leading to oral infections such as tooth decay and gum disease.

Studies have found different relationships between oral health and serious health conditions and diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and endocarditis. Some studies have indicated that heart disease, clogged arteries, and stroke may be associated with oral bacteria.

Other research suggests that gum disease and dental procedures that cut the gums may allow oral bacteria into the bloodstream. Consequently, those with a weak immune system or a damaged heart valve are at risk of infections such as endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart.

According to a 2000 Surgeon General's report on oral health, tooth decay is the most common chronic illness among children. The report also indicated associations between oral diseases and ear and sinus infections, weakened immune systems, diabetes, and heart and lung disease.

With so many risk factors associated with oral hygiene, experts agree that it is important for children to begin good teeth-cleaning habits early. In fact, children's dental health starts when they are still in their mother's womb. If a pregnant woman has poor nutrition, her unborn child is more likely to have tooth decay later in life.

Once a child is born, his or her diet is a key factor to oral health, even before teeth appear. According to Carole Palmer, Ed.D., R.D., professor at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, "Between the ages of 14 weeks to four months, deficiencies in calcium, vitamin, D, vitamin A, protein and calories could result in oral defects."

When teeth finally start to emerge from your child's gums (usually around 4 to 7 months of age), it is time to start cleaning. At first, parents should clean their baby's teeth using a clean, damp cloth. As more teeth emerge, a soft toothbrush can be used. Once the child reaches 2 years of age, parents should begin using toothpaste with fluoride, unless a doctor recommends using toothpaste with fluoride earlier.

The point in time when a child can start brushing his or her own teeth is a pivotal moment for that child's oral health into the future. According to the experts, good teeth cleaning habits begin early.

Children should brush twice daily, once after breakfast and once before bed. If possible, it's not a bad idea to brush after lunch. Making sure to brush properly (front, back, and side to side!) will break down plaque, a bacterial film that forms on teeth. Flossing is also critical to having clean teeth. Floss can get to the plaque in the hard-to-clean places between teeth.

If teeth are left uncleaned, plaque can harden, making it difficult to remove and causing tooth decay. It is important to spend at least 2 minutes brushing. Furthermore, children should use brushes with soft bristles.

Another crucial aspect of oral health is twice-yearly visits to the dentist. Dentists can check for signs of tooth decay and gum disease in addition to providing teeth cleanings that will make a child's smile sparkle and shine.

Not all children, however, have access to preventive and primary oral health care. Over 20 million children are not covered for dental services. Low-income and minority children are especially underserved.

In many US states, children receive preventive oral care through primary health care providers paid by Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Programs (CHIP). However, some states - such as Arizona, Arkansas, New Jersey, and West Virginia among others - do not pay primary care professionals to provide oral health risk assessments, apply fluoride varnish, or counsel patients on good oral hygiene.

In recognition of this year's National Children's Dental Health Month, the American Academy of Pediatrics is trying change the Medicaid policies in such states. By paying medical care professionals to also provide oral health care and advice, the number of children who receive inadequate dental health care will be reduced.

As long as your children have the opportunity to attend recommended dental visits, make sure they are doing their part by brushing twice daily and flossing. The sooner they start having good oral hygiene habits, the more likely they will have healthy teeth and a healthy life.

Review Date: 
February 10, 2011