Baby teeth fall out, but pediatric dental care is still critical

Good dental hygiene starts early in life, and its benefits extend beyond cleaning teeth and freshening breath. In fact, consistent daily brushing, flossing, and twice-yearly dental visits can lead to better overall physical and cognitive health and higher self-esteem.

Claudia I. Contreras, DDS,

“Some people think that baby teeth are going to fall out anyway, so why treat them,” says pediatric dentist Claudia I. Contreras, DDS, an assistant professor at the Health Sciences Center at the University of Texas School of Dentistry at San Antonio. “This idea is harmful because hygiene habits begin in childhood. Learning proper etiquette, hand washing, bathing and brushing teeth all begin in childhood – washing your toes is the same as flossing your teeth.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported in the last Texas Oral Health Basic Screening Survey that nearly 53% of kindergarten students and 67% of third graders in Texas had experienced tooth decay. It's statistics like these that motivate Contreras to dispel misconceptions about pediatric dentistry and increase access to treatment. Children with untreated teeth often suffer painful and life-long consequences, she said.

Oral health and physical development

Maintaining good oral health is essential for children's physical and social development. It directly affects correct speech, eating, and smiling, all of which contribute to social acceptance.

Teeth play a vital role in allowing children to effectively produce sounds when speaking. Certain sounds, such as “F” and “S,” are particularly affected by the presence or absence of teeth, often posing challenges for some children. Many children start combining words around their first birthday, which is when most dentists recommend their first dental visit.

A child rests his head on the table and refuses to eat.The tongue and back molars are important tools for eating and nutrition. When cooperating well, the child can push food to the mouth and break it down for easier swallowing. If dental discomfort disrupts this process, children may have difficulty chewing properly or limit the types of food they eat, which may lead to nutritional deficiencies over time.

The ability to speak clearly and eat correctly is linked to a child's ability to interact socially and is the foundation for effective communication and positive relationships. A healthy smile also boosts confidence and contributes to your child's overall health. It promotes a positive self-image and social acceptance.

Oral Health and Cognitive Health

The pain, discomfort and embarrassment often associated with dental disease, including cavities, can negatively impact cognitive development and self-esteem, affecting daily life.

A child sits in the classroom with his head in his hands.If a toothache or infection results in missed school days, cognitive development (the process of learning and acquiring knowledge) may be disrupted. Studies show that children are three times more likely to miss school and four times more likely to have a lower grade point average due to dental-related pain than other medical conditions.

Dental discomfort can hinder a child's ability to concentrate. Persistent or worsening toothache can lead to missed school days, creating a cycle of missed educational opportunities that can negatively impact academic performance.

The consequences of poor school performance extend beyond academics and can lead to children feeling shameful or inadequate. It can also negatively impact social acceptance and lead to lower self-esteem.

“Cavities can turn into infections, infections can turn into abscesses, and abscesses can turn into more serious conditions like cellulitis. These are the real consequences of untreated teeth. It’s hard for parents to see their children in pain, So it's important to prevent this,” Contreras said.

Compassion in the Dental Community

Contreras practices what she teaches her students.

We are not here to punish or blame patients or parents of children with dental problems,” she said. “Dentists, especially pediatric dentists, should be looking for new ways to motivate patients to take better care of their oral health. I tell my students that our job is not to point fingers, but to give positive feedback and tell our patients what they are doing. Be nice and encourage them to do so.

A family takes photos outdoors on bicycles.
From left to right: Kevin Hakala, Ashling, her brother Tommi and mother Yun Shi.

Marble and Kevin Hakala experienced this firsthand when they entrusted Contreras to take care of their daughter Ashlyn's teeth after she injured her teeth when she was 2 years old. Five years later, a healthy, permanent tree grew in Ashlyn's place.

“We take Ashling to Dr. C for check-ups at least twice a year,” Shi said. “She had a lot of cavities when she was five years old and needed treatment, but Dr. C helped discover some changes in her teeth. We all Take care at home. Dr. C answered all our questions and took every opportunity to educate us parents about oral health.

Describing her daughter's comfort level at the dentist's office, Hakara said, “When Dr. C went to the dentist, Ashlyn would often bring her a painting or a color photo. They had a great relationship.

Ashlyn was quick to confirm this.

“She's so sweet to me. She makes me so happy, she always keeps my teeth clean… She's the best dentist I've ever seen in the world,” Ashlyn said.

“Patients who haven’t seen each other in years or who are visiting for the first time can expect compassion and understanding from their dentists, rather than judgment,” Contreras said. “We are here to work with families and teach them habits to prevent future problem appear.”

Contreras stressed the importance of educating parents about the many affordable pediatric dental clinics in San Antonio and South Texas, including:

For assistance scheduling your child's next dental appointment, call UT Dentistry at 210-450-3500.

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