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 general health."
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 ( http://dentistry.uic.edu/test/depts/PatientServices/index.cfm) also offers dental care at a reduced cost.