February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, which means that dentists, public health folks and others will be talking a little more than usual about teaching kids good oral hygiene habits and stressing the need for more intervention . After all, caries (cavities) are on the rise, particularly interproximal ones  – those that develop between teeth, where neither toothbrushes nor sealants can really reach.
But why focus on just one month (and the shortest one of the year, at that)? The topic is important year round, which is why we regularly post about kids’ dental and oral health. And it involves more than just matters of children learning to take care of their teeth and seeing their dentist twice a year.
A child’s dental health actually begins before they’re born.
There are, of course, numerous factors in the mother’s health that can affect the health and development of her child, including diet, exposure to environmental toxins and even her own oral health .
For instance, one recent study by Yiping Han  at Case Western Reserve showed a link between oral bacteria and stillbirth.
An internet search in 2008 led a friend of a mother, who had just delivered a stillborn baby, to Han’s research lab – one of the few in the world working on understanding the role variations of the oral bacteria, Fusobacterium nucleatum, have on pre-term labor and stillbirths.
The mother delivered her fullterm baby at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., at 39 weeks and five days.
During the 35-year-old mother’s pregnancy (her first), she told Han she experienced excessive gum bleeding, a symptom of pregnancy-associated gingivitis. Approximately 75 percent of pregnant women experience gum bleeding due to the hormonal changes during pregnancy.
“There is an old wives’ tale that you lose a tooth for each baby, and this is due to the underlying changes during pregnancy,” said Han, “but if there is another underlying condition in the background, then you may lose more than a tooth but a baby.”
Bleeding associated with the gingivitis allowed the bacteria, normally contained to the mouth because of the body’s defense system, to enter the blood and work its way to the placenta.
For this reason, it’s vital that expectant women have a dentist check their teeth and gums both during and after pregnancy. But most put off visits to the dentist. According to a study published in the Journal of Perinatal Medicine, only 38% of women with bleeding gums during their pregnancy sought dental care – in part, it seems, because they didn’t see the bleeding as a sign of a dental problem. It’s best to let a dentist determine this. Just be sure your dentist knows that you are pregnant so that no procedures are done that could hurt the health of your developing child.
For more on dental health and care during pregnancy , check out this helpful tip sheet from WebMD.
Once born, children should start having regular dental checkups after their first tooth begins to errupt and no later than their first birthday. It helps, of course, if parents are committed to their own dental health, as well. As one recent survey  found,
“When parents don’t see the dentist, their children are much less likely to see the dentist,” says Inyang Isong, MD, MPH, of the MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy, the study’s lead author. “We also found that the children of parents who have put off their own dental care for financial reasons are more likely to have their care deferred due to cost as well. It looks like strategies to promote oral health should focus on the whole family.”
This, of course, is one of the reasons why we – and others – stress the importance of taking an active, preventive approach to dental health. Bar none, it’s the best way to minimize your dental bills. Even factoring in the cost of regular exams and cleanings, it’s much cheaper than the fillings and other restorative dentistry that’s needed when dental disease is allowed to develop.
Preventive steps can also be taken before the child’s birth. For instance, a study published late last year in Evidence-Based Dentistry found that promoting oral health to women, from before their giving birth through the first year of their child’s life, led to a pronounced reduction in childhood caries – 1.7% in the test group versus 9.6% in the control group.
The topics covered in each round offered mothers information and support relevant to their own and the child’s oral development across the subsequent 6 months period. In addition, the first round of literature included information for expectant mothers related to oral health changes during pregnancy, with emphasis on oral hygiene during pregnancy and proper nutrition. Other topics covered in this round were the importance of primary teeth, the use of pacifiers and the sleeping patterns of the child. The second and third rounds of information were concerned with the eruption of teeth, oral hygiene and nutrition.
Note, too, the stress of the mother’s own care of her teeth and gums – how this is again tied to the health of her child. And by giving the child an excellent start in life with respect to their dental health, you effectively lay groundwork for instilling good oral health habits and hygiene as they get older.
For more on children’s dental health, here are some previous posts on the subject:
- A Few Tips for Helping Your Kids Have Good Dental Health 
- Help with Children’s Dental Health & Hygiene 
- Dealing with Deep Decay in Children’s Teeth 
- Little Proof that Fluoride Is Effective for Kids 6 and Under, Says New JADA Study 
- Health Risks from Dental Sealants 
And for some fun resources for teaching kids about their teeth and dental health, check out these free activities provided by the ADA.