Top Five Best Oral Health Practices at School

It may seem like a mindless matter, but packing an apple instead of a sugary snack in a child’s lunch this fall can help improve oral health and educational performance. After all, children eat more than 20 percent of their meals at school during the academic year. So Delta Dental, the nation’s largest dental benefits provider, reminds parents to make good decisions when packing a child’s school lunch.

Overconsumption of sugar harms a child’s oral and overall health. Snacks like cookies, candy and chewy fruit snacks mix with bacteria in the sticky plaque that constantly forms on teeth to generate acid, which can wear away enamel and cause tooth decay. While sweets may provide a temporary jolt for kids, that sugar rush soon turns into a crash and kids are left feeling lethargic. That is not the kind of mental state kids need to prepare for an afternoon of classes.

Instead, Delta Dental recommends these top five oral health best practices:

• After breakfast, before leaving for school, make sure your child brushes well with a fluoridated toothpaste. Brushing immediately following a meal helps clean teeth and eliminates halitosis (bad breath).

• Fill a child’s lunch box with healthy lunch food and snacks such as lean meats, whole grain breads, low-fat yogurt or cheeses, apples, bite-size carrots and baked chips or whole-grain crackers. Besides being packed with nutrients, certain fruits and veggies can even help clean the teeth and gums. Make treats a treat. Serve sugary sticky snacks like cookies, cake and brownies and candy only in moderation. Room parents should discuss bringing in healthy snacks along with sugary treats for birthdays and other classroom parties.

• If a child chews gum and the school allows it, chewing sugar-free gum for a few minutes in between lunch and afternoon classes can help stimulate saliva to buffer the acid and help dislodge food particles from the mouth. Gum containing the natural sweetener, Xylitol, is a particularly good option since studies have shown that consistent exposure to Xylitol can reduce cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth.

• Children with braces should try to brush or rinse well with water after lunch. Children who wear removable retainers should clean them well after each meal and rinse out their mouths.

• Before the school year starts, schedule a dental visit to make sure there are no problems to distract a child during the school year. Ask the dentist about sealants as a way to protect children’s teeth from cavities. Sealants – a thin coating of bonding material applied over the chewing surface of molar teeth – act as a barrier to cavity-causing bacteria.

Make Dentist Visits the Rule for Back-to-School

Along with an annual physical, clothes and backpacks, Delta Dental suggests adding a visit to the dentist to your child’s back-to-school list this fall. Dental professionals recommend biannual visits for most children, and the end of summer is an ideal time because it follows a season in which kids have indulged in treats like soda, ice cream and cotton candy.

A dental visit is important because a dentist can diagnose potential oral health problems such as tooth decay or gum disease and apply preventive measures as needed, including teeth cleaning, fluoride treatment, dental sealants, and instruction on good dental hygiene habits. Making sure children get a clean bill of oral health before the school year allows them to return to class flashing a happy and healthy smile. Conversely, untreated dental problems can be painful and embarrassing, and can harm a child’s educational and social development. In 2007, for example, the State of California estimated that seven percent of their more than seven million schoolchildren (504,000) missed at least one day of school because of a dental problem. 1

Unfortunately, access to sufficient dental care is not nearly what it needs to be for children from poor and uninsured families. A study from the Pew Center on the States found that two-thirds of states in the U.S. do not have adequate policies in place to ensure access to proper preventive dentistry, particularly for those children that lack appropriate access to care. 2 Instead, programs like mobile dental units that visit schools and school-based dental sealant programs are playing a critical part in improving the oral health and quality of life of low-income, American children.

Ultimately, good oral health for children starts at home with proper dental hygiene and diet. The daily one-two punch of brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing once is still the foundation for maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Very young children (ages one to five) are particularly prone to tooth decay and parents should supervise (or actually brush) to make sure they do a good job. A diet light on sugary snacks and drinks and rich in fruits and vegetables goes a long way toward maintaining good oral and overall health.

1(Source: 2007 California Health Interview Survey) UCLA Health Policy Research Brief – Unaffordable Dental Care Is Linked to Frequent School Absences, 2009 Pourat N and Nicholson G. http://www.healthpolicy.ucla.edu/pubs/files/Unaffordable_Dental_Care_PB_1109.pdf

2The Cost of Delay: State Dental Policies Fail One in Five Children. Pew Center on the States. http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/Cost_of_Delay_web.pdf.