February is a time devoted to young smiles. It’s National Children’s Dental Health Month, which highlights the importance of oral health at a young age.
For April Brown, the dental hygienist for the Henderson County Department of Public Health, children’s dental health is a top priority. As part of her job, Brown checks the teeth of kindergarteners and third-graders in all the county’s elementary schools. She looks for untreated decay, broken teeth, infections, and other dental issues.
Brown also teaches children about proper dental care using fun lessons and activities.
“It’s important when kids are younger that we talk to them about proper oral healthcare,” Brown said. “I like to talk to the kids about why we need our teeth, what we need them for and then go into how to take care of them.”
Why children’s oral health matters
In North Carolina, nearly one in five kindergartners have untreated tooth decay, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. In Henderson County this year, Brown found that 15.1% of kindergarteners and 13.7% of third-graders had untreated tooth decay.
Tooth decay can lead to long-term health problems like chronic diseases. Brown wants caregivers to talk to kids about why their teeth are important and how to have good habits at a young age.
“Baby teeth are more brittle than adult teeth,” Brown said, which also makes them more prone to cavities.
She added children with poor oral healthcare are three times more likely to miss school due to dental issues. But why care about baby teeth if they fall out anyway? Brown said baby teeth help with chewing hard food, speech development and leaving space for adult teeth. Losing baby teeth too early can lead to alignment issues, possibly requiring braces later in life.
Tips to keep teeth healthy:
- The basics: Make sure your child brushes with the right amount of fluoride toothpaste twice daily, follows the dentist’s flossing advice and eats a balanced diet while limiting sugary snacks and beverages. Sugar is a big cause of tooth decay.
- Lead by example: Let your child see your tooth-brushing routine and make it a fun, regular activity. “You want to set the example for your child,” said Brown. “If you want your child to have good oral hygiene, then you have to demonstrate good hygiene.”
- Consider sealants: These are protective coatings for the 6- and 12-year back molars. Sealants are a quick and non-invasive procedure that can be done at the dentist’s office. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sealants can prevent 80% of cavities in these molars.
Overcoming dental anxiety
Brown knows some kids may fear going to the dentist. She suggests trying to make visits a positive experience for them. Read children’s books about going to the dentist and make sure they feel comfortable.
“If they are informed and they know what’s going to happen – and they hear it from someone they trust – then they’re more likely going to have a positive experience,” Brown said.
Brown also offers oral health education to community groups like schools, nonprofits and churches. This includes training, interactive demonstrations and printed educational materials. Interested groups can contact her at [email protected] for more information.
Andrew Mundhenk is the Communications Manager for the Henderson County Department of Public Health.