One in three children have not seen a dentist in more than a
year and about 52 million hours of school are missed each year by
children with dental-related infections and pain. But much of this
could be prevented if parents start dental care by the time the
child is 1, says Dr. Indru Punwani, University of Illinois at
Chicago professor and head of pediatric dentistry.
Educating parents is critical, as dental disease is being seen
earlier in children, Punwani says. "By the age of kindergarten,
about 40 to 45 percent (of children) have tooth decay." Since 90
percent of tooth decay is preventable, early intervention can help
reduce this statistic. "It's so easily preventable, that's what we
should aim for.
"Parents need to understand that tooth decay is an infection
caused by bacteria," Punwani says. "Once the bacteria get
introduced they go from baby teeth to adult teeth to bone to
When parents start children's dental exams early, dentists are
better able to assess the child's risk of infection and head off
problems before they become severe. "Many people think baby teeth
are unimportant and why should we bother," Punwani says. "But once
bacteria enter into the system, they've got a foothold to baby
teeth and then it progresses."
Early dental visits can help educate parents in preventive
measures, Punwani says. One of the biggest risk factors for young
children is falling asleep with a bottle filled with milk or juice,
which causes dental caries. Parents can also increase their child's
risk of tooth disease by sharing saliva with them (for instance
through sharing a spoon) if a caregiver has active tooth decay.
"There's a relationship between mothers or caregivers and what the
child can pick up. The parent needs to get the tooth fixed because
the bacteria can be transported to the child," Punwani says.
If you haven't been able to take your child to the dentist on a
regular basis because of the expense involved, the Chicago Dental
Society (www.cds.org) has a list
of dental clinics that offer services on a sliding scale basis for
those without dental insurance. The University of Illinois at
Chicago Dental School (
also offers dental care at a reduced cost.
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