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February is National Children’s Dental Health Month

February 11, 2014


Children with (tooth decay) often have pain with eating, so they don’t want to eat.

Shawn Henson

Health Specialist

Shasta Head Start

Brush, brush, brush — and floss too.

February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, a month to highlight awareness about the importance of oral health.

Did you know that:

  • Nearly a third of California third-graders have untreated dental problems?
  •  Tooth decay—and pain—don’t only affect school-age children?

A bright smile and a pain free future

Teaching your child good oral hygiene habits leads to a bright smile and a pain-free future.

“Children with (tooth decay) often have pain with eating, so they don’t want to eat,” says Shawn Henson, health specialist for Shasta Head Start. “I recall numerous children (with health problems) who flourished after their teeth were fixed. Children in pain can’t learn, they can’t eat, they don’t sleep well and they don’t sit still.”

Last year, Henson recalls, three children were “cranky, hitting, biting, throwing things, or not able to sit still.” Routine dental screenings revealed cavities and, after the children’s teeth were fixed, “teachers noticed the behavior issues resolved themselves.”

Another child was underweight, anemic and had severe dental decay.

“She ate very little because her mouth hurt,” Henson says.

Head Start home visitors worked with her parents to improve her diet and get her vitamins. She drank Pediasure (a diet supplement) at Head Start, but still didn’t eat enough.

It took two years to find a dentist in her area who would accept Denti-Cal (state dental insurance).

Head Start staff took her to dental appointments because “transportation was a barrier,” Henson says. But once her teeth were fixed, “she gained weight until she was within normal range.”

Routine brushing is a key to dental health

“If you encourage kids to brush after meals, it becomes a habit,” Henson says.

Children in her program start brushing when they can spit out toothpaste (about age 2). After meals, they take turns brushing while other kids play or help clean up. Children who are designated as “tooth-brushing monitors” choose the next child to come brush. Younger children dry brush with easy-to-hold toothbrushes and, after infants eat, teachers wipe their mouths with a soft washcloth.

Head Start programs provide children with toothbrushes and toothpaste. Other programs can get brushes donated by local dentists or toothbrush companies. If children can’t brush after meals, they should swish their mouth with water, gargle and spit it out.

Make brushing fun

It’s easy to make children want to brush, says Robbie Bergerson, community outreach coordinator for Sonrisas (Smiles) Community Dental Clinic in Half Moon Bay.“We have them count to 10” on each side of the upper and lower teeth.

Other teachers suggest children hum “Happy Birthday,” the alphabet song or another familiar song.

“When our kids (go) to the dentist, we tell (them) how cool it is to go, so (they) get excited,” says Teresa Campbell, who runs a family child care, Kidink Preschool, in San Mateo.

Build good habits

“Eating healthy is really important,” says Julia McKeon, executive director of Sonrisas.

McKeon uses a sugar cube chart to show kids just how much sugar is in the food they eat. When children eat lunch, she adds, “we tell them to eat anything crunchy (such as an apple or carrot), that will clean their teeth, last.”

Henson advises teachers to give kids water throughout the day instead of milk or juice, and milk at mealtimes.

Campbell doesn’t allow pacifiers in her program because “there’s bacteria all over them.” And she recalls one child’s teeth sticking out from using his pacifier so much.

Talk with parents

“The most important thing is (that) parents understand how important oral health is,” says Maryanne Lewis, former principal at Sea Breeze Preschool in Foster City. Let kids “pick out their favorite toothbrush.”

Teachers can suggest that “parents teach kids how to brush, encourage brushing twice a day, and (offer) healthy snacks and diet,” Bergerson says.

Bergerson gives stickers to parents to put by the mirror to “remind kids to brush before bed.”

Teachers can tell parents about free and low-cost state dental insurance for children—though in some areas it may be hard to find a participating dentist. Henson’s program provides translation at dentist appointments and plans to follow-up with families.

Get help from the pros

Sonrisas Dental Center visits early care and education programs to teach kids about oral health.

“We have two-foot-high puppets that children practice brushing on,” says Julia McKeon, executive director of Sonrisas Dental Center. “One is a ladybug named Bruno and one’s a bug named Gloria. We also (give out) brushing charts, and when children bring them back, they get stickers.”

Sonrisas also recruits local dentists and hygiene students to do free dental screenings at programs. Other programs contact local dentists directly.

After Henson spoke about Head Start at a dental hygiene school, board members and students began giving free dental exams. Burton contacted a retired dentist to come do dental screenings once a year. One of the parents at Kidsink is a dentist who gives exams and teaches kids about oral health.

“One child had 20 cavities, every tooth was infected,” recalls Henson.

After he got treatment, he grinned ear to ear as he showed his Head Start teacher his new teeth.