D+ for Decay

Do you know when it’s the right time to take a child to the dentist? Many parents and caregivers say by the time he or she reaches kindergarten. The reality? When a child reaches his or her first birthday, they should have already been examined by a licensed dental professional.

“Nationally, we have a challenge in this country messaging to consumers when it is the right time for children to seek dental care, because baby teeth are vulnerable to tooth decay when they first erupt,” says Timothy Martinez, associate dean for Community Partnerships and Access to Care at Western University College of Dental Medicine, or WUCDM. “Within the past decade, due to the rising decay rates in children, guidelines were revised to recommend a child’s first visit to the dentist by age 1. Unfortunately, there is still a disconnect with this message.”

The lack of understanding about the importance of a child’s dental needs, especially in the early years, lends itself to why several reports have recently come out about the poor condition of young children’s oral health care. The advocacy group Children Now, in their 2014 California Children’s Report Card, stamped the state with the low grade of D+ in oral health care among children ages 0-5 years old. According to their findings, by kindergarten, more than 50 percent of children in the golden state have already experienced dental decay and 28 percent have untreated decay.

Michelle Williams, a mother of two, said her understanding of dental care changed after having her second child.

“I didn’t know, when I had my daughter, that you should start paying attention to a child’s dental needs when they are an infant,” said the Glendale resident. “Now I know to pay attention to my 4-month-old son’s gums and wipe them with a soft, wet washcloth to keep bacteria away.”

Tooth decay is listed as the most chronic illness among young children and has become an epidemic that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists as the No. 1 chronic infectious disease among our nation’s children. Additionally, researchers with the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report in 2013 that cited California as among the 10 worst states when it comes to getting children in to see a dentist.

“Families experience barriers to accessing oral health services and parents may not have transportation to take their child to the dentist,” said Nancy Watson, a program officer at First 5 LA. “At the provider level, general dentists may not have the experience or comfort level to see young children, and physicians may not refer young children for a dental visit.”

Watson says First 5 LA has long recognized that healthy nutrition and dental care are important for health and well-being of a child. For example, the First 5 LA Oral Health and Nutrition Expansion and Enhancement Initiative, or OHN, has been implemented to better help children in Los Angeles County gain access to quality dental health services. The goal of First 5 LA’s Children’s Dental Care Program, or CDCP, is to provide preventative or treatment services to 95,000 children.

Dr. Martinez, the CDCP project director at WUCDM, which brings “portable dental units” to children environments within five school districts throughout L.A. County, says it’s imperative we have a mind shift as a nation to establish a dental home for all children before the age of 1.

“Parents/caretakers who wait to take their children for their first dental visit at age 3 are more likely to require extensive and costly treatment,” noted Martinez.

Watson says, like many health and health related issues for our most vulnerable children and families, prevention in the early years (0-5) is critical.

“The investments First 5 LA has made in expanding education and prevention services for young children and their families, and strengthening the capacity of the dental safety net and workforce, along with policy efforts, will go a long way towards improving the oral health of young children in L.A. County,” Watson said.

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