Dental care for the small set

Dental care for the small set

UF to study programs that may help prevent tooth decay in tots

By April Frawley Birdwell

Photo by Maria Belen Farias

A toddler’s tiny teeth are destined to fall out in later years as their permanent pearly whites grow in. But for some children, especially those from low-income families, cavities and poor oral health lead to complicated dental problems long before they even graduate from their cribs.

Programs designed to incorporate tooth decay prevention as part of a child’s regular checkup with the doctor could be a big step toward improving infants’ and toddlers’ dental health, say UF researchers, who received a $293,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether such programs in Florida and Texas are actually improving dental care in young children enrolled in Medicaid.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommend children visit the dentist for the first time by age 1, but many children do not receive preventive dental care until they are much older, if at all, said UF health economist Jill Boylston Herndon, Ph.D., the principal investigator on the two-year grant.

“There is also this attitude that baby teeth are not that important,” said Frank Catalanotto, D.M.D., a professor of pediatric dentistry in the College of Dentistry who advocated for Florida to establish a program targeting early childhood caries. “But the reality is getting a cavity in a baby tooth can lead to an infection. And, in fact, several children have died over the last several years in this country of an untreated dental infection.

“The tragedy of this is that it is relatively easy to prevent early childhood caries with some simple measures of just toothbrushing using a fluoridated toothpaste, not putting a baby to bed with a bottle, and a dental visit with an application of a fluoride varnish,” added Catalanotto, a co-investigator on the grant.

In 2008, Florida and Texas adopted policies to reimburse pediatricians for providing preventive services to young children receiving Medicaid and dental education for their parents. As part of a child’s regular checkup, pediatricians provide dental education to parents and apply a fluoride varnish to children’s teeth. The doctors then refer the parents and child to a dentist.

Dental caries is the most prevalent disease in young children, affecting more than one-fourth of kids between 2 and 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By their teen years, two-thirds of children from low-income homes have suffered tooth decay.