By Rhonda Stephens, DDS, MPH
Many of us know that a woman’s health plays an important role in the physical and mental health of her children. What we might not think about is that this connection extends to oral health, as well. At the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative, we’re working to protect children from exposure to the harmful bacteria that causes dental decay and to create good habits for lifelong oral health by extending dental insurance coverage for women covered by North Carolina’s Medicaid for Pregnant Women program.
Preventing tooth decay in children actually starts with supporting good oral health for parents. When parents suffer from dental decay, they can transmit the harmful bacteria that causes decay to their children. Those of us that have had young children know how this happens—maybe we use our child’s spoon to show her how tasty that oatmeal is or maybe we use our mouth to clean off the pacifier that fell on the floor. These seemingly innocuous behaviors can lead to the transmission of harmful bacteria to our children.
Emerging research shows that this bacteria may also be transmitted directly from the mother to the fetus before the child is born. Therefore, increased bacteria in the mother can make the infant more likely to develop tooth decay.
Professional dental care is critical for helping pregnant women and new mothers maintain good oral health, but many are not getting the dental care they need, particularly low-income pregnant women. That’s why we’re working to extend the dental benefit associated with North Carolina’s Medicaid for Pregnant Women program.
Currently, when an uninsured woman who earns less than 196 percent of the Federal Poverty Line becomes pregnant, she is eligible for Medicaid throughout her pregnancy and for a brief period afterwards. However, while her medical benefits continue after her child’s birth, her dental coverage lapses immediately.
Extending post-partum dental benefits would not only give new moms additional time to improve their own oral health, but would also provide an opportunity for dental providers to educate them on the oral health of their new child.
Currently, one-third of North Carolina children have experienced tooth decay by the time they reach kindergarten—an improvement from 10 years ago, but still much too high. In an effort to reduce early childhood tooth decay, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry strongly recommends that children have their first dental visit by age one or whenever the first tooth erupts. However, there are still many children who do not enter the oral health care system until much too late and are suffering unnecessary dental disease. Time spent providing expectant and new parents guidance on proper feeding habits, oral hygiene practices, the importance of baby teeth, and simply what to expect in coming years is critical to ensuring the oral health of young children.
North Carolina can promote good oral health habits among children and parents by extending dental coverage beyond the pregnancy, as we do with medical coverage. This is a simple step our elected officials can take to improve the health of our state’s children and mothers.
Rhonda Stephens is the research director at the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative. The North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative convenes diverse stakeholders to identify and resolve consumer-level and systemic barriers to good oral health and to accelerate implementation of policies and practices that reduce oral health disparities and promote improved oral health for all North Carolinians. The North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative is a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation. To learn more visit: www.oralhealthnc.org.