The quickest way to address children's oral health could be influencing their parents and carers.
While 2016 sees British astronaut Tim Peake in space on the ISS space station, the UK's woeful children's dental decay statistics are competing to make headline news. This is a sad indictment of our times.
The alarming (and costly) rise of young children being admitted to hospital for extractions due to tooth decay has kick-started various initiatives, including the impending sugar tax, but this is going to take time to implement and its outcomes are largely unknown.
The quickest way to address children's oral health could be done at a ‘grass roots’ level by influencing those who care for them on a day-to-day basis. These are parents or carers of babies, toddlers and young children, largely mothers, who provide daily oral care even before the first child's visit to the dentist.
To reach this group effectively the dental profession needs to step outside its comfort zone, engaging with mothers directly, reaching out to those who influence them and having a presence in the communication channels mothers use on a day-to-day basis.
Engaging with mothers
Oral care of babies, toddlers and young children takes place in the community, so it is imperative that education and support takes place in as many ‘touch points’ as possible: the home, doctor's surgery, NCT groups and mother and baby groups. Dental surgeries can help by providing easy-to-understand promotional literature with tips and advice.
A scan of the health education literature available at local GP surgeries or Health Visitors' baby weigh-in clinics show a dearth of oral care advice for young children, yet mothers spend more time here than at the dentist. Whilst in Scandinavia oral health checks and advice is given with the six and 18-month baby check-ups, none is given in the UK. These are missed opportunities. Therefore, reaching out beyond dental surgeries and working with ‘early influencers’ is vital; these include GPs, midwives, health visitors, nursery personnel and teachers.
With longer working hours and more mothers entering the workforce, nurseries, schools and carers have an increasing role to play in teaching life skills to the next generation. Support of toothbrushing programmes in these environments may become increasingly important.
Oral care messaging needs to exist where mothers and families spend their time; each year there are numerous ‘Baby Shows’, the largest ones attracting over 20,000 parents, all keen to learn how to care for their babies and toddlers. Yet there is no official oral care representation at all. Tapping into the mother-mother online networks enable commercial companies to influence (and make sales), yet these channels used by thousands of mothers every day, appear largely unused by health educators.
Just as Jamie Oliver raised the profile of sugar, celebrities who place a value on great looking teeth and whom mothers and children engage with, can help raise the profile of oral care. While not used to date, Sara Hurley (Chief Dental Officer) appears to value this approach, and has recently suggested David Beckham for the role!
One mother frustrated by the lack of advice and suitable oral products for her baby daughter set up the company Brush-Baby, to provide advice and practical products to focus on ‘Early Years Toothcare’ needs from birth to six years, from care of toothless gums, through teething and onto mixed dentition.
Dominique Tillen, Brush-Baby's Founder says: ‘Mums are, by necessity, inventors: devising games to keep children happy, creating stories to help children fall asleep and even formulating recipes so that children will eat what they're supposed to eat! And when the need arises, we even invent products to make our lives easier.
'As a health professional, I knew the importance of looking after my child's teeth. However, as a parent, I wanted to provide the best and I needed practical help to achieve this.
‘So, similar to parent-powered companies such as Ella's Kitchen who revolutionised the range and quality of baby food available, the Brush-Baby range has been designed with young children in mind, taking into account their dental development and the skills and behaviours that affect provision of oral care.’
Dominique concludes: ‘Parents are one of a child's strongest role models and greatest influencers. We need to introduce an oral care regime in infancy in order to establish a long-term view on daily oral health routines, one that will stand a child in good stead through their dental development and onto a lifetime good dental habits, healthy teeth and gums.’
Getting started early
The children of today (and tomorrow!) will not want to have our teeth, so it's good to get started early, teaching, encouraging and enabling young children to care for their teeth and adopt good oral healthcare habits to last a lifetime. Formalising and focusing on ‘Early Years Toothcare’ will raise the profile of the need to care for toothless gums through teething and onto a full set of teeth, and developing a simple routine for parents at this stage could help provide confidence, support parenting skills and raise awareness of the importance of baby teeth.