Oral health can lead to classroom success (via @recordnet)

1 Sep

Close up of toothpaste squeezing on toothbrush

At the top of many back-to-school lists are the basic needs such as backpacks, crayons, notebook paper and glue.

But often left off the list is a need that, if left untreated, could derail students’ education from the time they start kindergarten, even becoming a lifelong problem for many.

Oral health.

Tooth decay and other dental problems can effect children in the classroom, according to Dr. Jeffrey Wood, professor and chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry at the University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco.

By the time they start kindergarten, 40 percent of children in the United States already have cavities, according to statistics reported in 1999 in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry. By the time they start first grade, that percentage jumps to 50 percent.

“California requires children have oral exams prior to starting kindergarten,” said Wood, “it’s really an important effort, because so many who start already have oral health issues. That’s late, but it’s better than doing nothing, because for many children, it’s the first time that the child may be evaluated by any public health agency.”

Unfortunately, Wood said, some 16 years after those startling reports, there haven’t been any improvements.

Another report, “Mommy It Hurts to Chew” published by the Dental Health Foundation in 2006, said half a million children statewide miss school because of dental problems.

Among those problems, Wood said, are toothaches, having teeth repaired or even tooth removal. Further statistics showed 28 percent of children statewide have untreated decay, 19 percent have extensive decay — putting them at risk for facial swellings — and up to 8 percent suffer with pain and infections.

“They’re in pain, and those conditions impact the ability to pay attention in class, perform tasks and recognition,” he said. “This is a huge impact on learning.”

Poor oral health that begins in the early stages of a child’s life can follow them into adulthood, Wood said. And for many, it can begin before they are even born. Having a healthy mouth can improve the chances that the newborn will be healthy; the best way is for expecant mothers to brush and floss daily and see their dentists regularly.

“What we know is that newborn children tend to have bacteria in their mouths that their mothers have,” he said.

Another issue that Woods points out is that parents can be given bad information from friends or even other dentists, such as not seeing a dentist until school age, to an unhealthy diet and a general lack of information.

“In some culture groups, it’s really sad, because toothaches are seen as just ‘childhood experiences’ and many parents just don’t look in their kid’s mouths. We’ve seen toddlers come in with baby bottles filled with Coke and chocolate milk.”

Woods advises the most important step to combat these problems is simply early prevention. Parents may not always be aware that early childhood health starts long before school. It’s critical for parents to talk to their children’s pediatricians or physicians and get recommendations to find a dental practice or clinic and become regular patients.

The dream for Woods is to have an infant oral health discussion that begins with an expectant mother before giving birth, as it’s just as important a concept as changing diapers and finding the right baby formula. Doing so can curb the risk for pain and keep more children engaged in the classroom.

“When we see a child who is 2 years old come in with tons of decay, they’re going straight to the operation room, and if they don’t, damage will continue,” said Woods, “Those problems will follow them for rest of their life.”

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