February was Children’s Dental Health Month, a good time to consider how we can help kids build healthy habits that keep their teeth—and their whole bodies—strong.
As the Dental Director of MCHC Health Centers, I’ve thought a lot about how we, as health professionals, can help to maximize the health of children in our community. To this end, several years ago I worked with people at MCHC and in the community to start a dental outreach program, sending MCHC health educators into local classrooms (preschool through high school) to teach young people how to prevent dental disease rather than trying to catch up once the problems were established.
The outreach program focuses on topics including proper brushing techniques and information about what causes cavities. For high school students, the instruction includes additional health topics such as the hazards of smoking and eating disorders.
The truth is, damage from dental disease can go beyond dental pain and infection. Dental disease can affect speech development, the ability to learn, and self-esteem. Small children with decayed teeth are often unable to eat nourishing foods, resulting in poor growth or even failure to thrive. Children experiencing dental pain are distracted and unable to concentrate on schoolwork, often resulting in poor school performance. It is important for young children to see a dentist for a well-child check as soon as the first tooth pops through so they can start good habits early.
Because MCHC offers both medical and dental care for children under one roof, I have the opportunity to work with pediatric medical providers, and we all agree that focusing on the underlying causes of children’s health problems is best. While we cannot prevent all medical and dental problems, there are lots of ways we can help kids thrive.
It all starts with good nutrition. That’s easy to say, but not always easy to provide. First, parents need to know how to prepare healthy meals and snacks. During the dental well-child check, our dentists provide health and nutrition coaching. Every month, our outreach coordinator provides a healthy food demonstration in our lobby to teach interested patients how to prepare a healthy meals or snacks with fruits and vegetables currently in season.
I understand why inexpensive junk food is appealing, especially when time and money are tight. It’s quick, easy, and it tastes good. But in the long run, it’s not healthy. If I could only give one piece of advice, I would ask parents to replace sugary soda with tap water. As a parent myself, I know it’s hard to say no to our kids, but taking soda out of our kids’ diets can help reduce cavities and decrease the prevalence of obesity (among other benefits). According to healthymendocino.org, almost half of fifth graders in Mendocino County are overweight or obese (a whopping 47.7 percent), and obesity has been tied to a whole host of health problems, including diabetes. Soda is also one of the main culprits causing cavities.
Another important way parents can help children maintain healthy teeth is to teach them to brush properly (and to brush their teeth for them until they’re ready to take it on themselves). If you see white chalky spots or discolored areas, be sure to make an appointment with your dentist right away.
For kids who need dental care and cannot afford it, the dental team at MCHC Health Centers participates the annual Give Kids a Smile event, a day when dental professionals volunteer their services to provide free dental care for disadvantaged families. This year, 26 MCHC employees volunteered to care for 22 pediatric patients, providing treatment worth more than $12,800.
While we may not be able to provide dental care for everyone, we always put kids at the top of the list and do our best to provide care, whether they can afford it or not.
Dr. Doug Lewis is the dental director at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.