Back to School with Healthy Teeth PDF Print E-mail
Written by Carole Mulford   

Do you remember your last toothache? Maybe you’re lucky enough not to have had one, but if you have, it’s hard to forget. Imagine sitting in a classroom and trying to concentrate on your teacher’s voice or a new activity when you’re distracted by pain.


Unfortunately, that’s what lies ahead for too many of our elementary school students. About 40 percent of these young students ¾ four out of every ten children! ¾ enter kindergarten with some tooth decay. Cavities are five times more common than asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Dental problems can start very early. The sugar that lurks in so many foods and beverages is a major culprit, and it’s not just in obviously sweet treats like candy, cookies, and soda, but also in seemingly “healthy” foods like cereal, granola bars, soy milk, and juice. For both children and adults, the sugar in our diets creates an acidic environment in our mouths that wears down tooth enamel, causing tooth decay. It’s harmful to both children and adults, but it is far more damaging to young children as they develop.


In addition to sugar, the lack of fluoridated water and limited access to early and ongoing dental care also play a role. When dental problems aren’t detected and treated, students can miss school days and experience other pain-related problems like trouble chewing or lack of sleep.


The good news is that cavities and more serious, painful dental problems like abscessed teeth can be prevented with early care and good oral health habits. That’s why we at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education are doing our part to help parents make informed decisions, prevent health problems like tooth decay, and access the care their children need to stay healthy.


If your child is enrolling in kindergarten, transitional kindergarten, or first grade, you’ll see an Oral Health Assessment Form in his or her enrollment packet, available in English and Spanish. Families fill out the first part of the form (with information such as the child’s name, age, grade, and school), and then take the form to a licensed dental professional to make sure the child has been checked for cavities.


We realize that many families may not have a dentist, or may worry that they cannot afford one. If your child is enrolled in Medi-Cal, he or she has dental benefits through Denti-Cal. If so, call 1-800-322-6384 for help finding a local dentist. Two local clinics also are opening appointments to kindergarten and first grade students who don’t already have a dentist or can’t afford one: Dientes Community Dental (831-464-5409, or www.dientes.org) and Salud Para La Gente (831-728-0222, or www.splg.org).


Prompting a dental check-up through the school registration process is just one of the ways we’re trying to keep students healthy. Nutrition education and water stations in schools are part of the picture, too. We also participate along with other community leaders in a County-wide Oral Health Access coalition, which endorsed the idea of promoting dental care for elementary students.


We plan to expand this initiative to preschools as well, to reach children as early as possible. The Oral Health Access group also is aiming even earlier, long before preschool and kindergarten, promoting a campaign called “First Tooth First Birthday.” Many parents, pediatricians, and even dentists may not realize that infants and toddlers need dental care ¾ ideally, visiting a dentist by the time their first tooth arrives, or by their first birthday (whichever comes first).


Families can help their kids develop lifelong healthy habits by helping them brush in the morning and before bed, avoiding sugary drinks, encouraging rinsing with water after eating (if brushing isn’t possible right away), and never putting a baby to bed with a bottle containing anything but water (milk, formula, juice, or sweet drinks). And of course, we as adults can set a good example for our kids in these and other healthy habits.


So many health challenges are unavoidable or feel out of our control, but that’s not true of most dental problems. The tooth decay we see in our elementary school students is nearly 100% preventable. When we have a clear opportunity to prevent pain, suffering, and the development of more serious problems, we need to seize that opportunity.


Whether your child is entering school for the first time or coming back to school after a summer off, this is a great time to make an appointment with a dentist and make sure any cavities or other problems are detected and treated. As school begins again and throughout the year, it’s also an opportunity for all of us to model good oral health habits, for ourselves and our kids.


Thank you for helping us change the statistics on how many Santa Cruz County elementary students are showing up in kindergarten with untreated tooth decay, so they can have a healthier childhood and grow up to be healthy adults.


Carole Mulford is the manager of the Child Development Department for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education overseeing the Child Development Resource Center and the Childhood Advisory Council to increase awareness of the importance of investing in quality care and early childhood education and to improve children's futures. Personally, she is passionate about preventing metabolic diseases through scientific nutrition education. A mother of four adult children and grandmother to seven young ones, she has been working and living in Santa Cruz mountains since 1989.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 August 2017 02:24
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