Over the past two years, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Oral Health Program screened over 10,000 children to assess the dental health of children enrolled in Los Angeles County public schools. Our study found that by the time they enter kindergarten, nearly half of children in the county will have developed cavities (tooth decay) and by the time they enter third grade, more than 60 percent will have had dental disease.
We also found that cavities are much more common in children from socioeconomically disadvantaged households, especially among children from Asian, Black/African American, and Latino/Latinx backgrounds. Children from families with low incomes are almost twice as likely to have treated and/or untreated cavities compared to those from families with higher incomes. More than 60 percent of Latino/Latinx children and more than 50 percent of Black/African American children have had a cavity in their lifetime, compared to only 32 percent of non-Latino/Latinx white children.
One reason for these extremely high rates of cavities is the misconception that children’s cavities are not important because “baby teeth will fall out anyway.” But studies show that the best predictor of cavities in permanent (adult) teeth is the presence of cavities in baby teeth. This tells us we need to start taking care of our baby’s mouth as soon as they are born for good dental health in adulthood.
That is why Public Health has launched an awareness campaign to encourage parents to take three simple actions to safeguard their baby’s dental health from day one:
- Even before the first tooth comes in, clean your baby’s gums with a washcloth after feeding to remove leftover milk, which is a feeding ground for bad bacteria.
- Brush your baby’s teeth twice a day with a soft toothbrush and just a smear of fluoride toothpaste, the size of a grain of rice.
- Start visiting the dentist every 6 months by the time your baby turns one or when their first tooth appears.
Parents may be concerned about taking their child to the dentist right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, but visiting the dentist is safe. Dentists wear personal protective equipment and the Dental Board of California and the Cal/OSHA require that dental offices meet safety measures to protect patients. If you are feeling anxious about making an appointment, call the dental office in advance to learn what safety procedures they have implemented.
Dental health is essential to overall health. Good dental hygiene habits at home and access to a dentist put kids on track for a lifetime of healthy smiles. We encourage parents to visit our website at ChooseHealthLA.com/Teeth for tips and call 211 to find a low- or no-cost dentist. The website features a wide variety of tips and advice for parents of children of all ages, as well as for women who are pregnant. We need to start caring for their baby teeth from day one.
Maritza Cabezas, D.D.S., M.P.H., is dental director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Oral Health Program.