Don’t play the blame game for children’s dental health

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  Posted by: Dental Design      11th May 2018

Another article about children’s dental health?! With more dire figures released at the beginning of 2018, this is a topic that will continue to be analysed and reconsidered from every single angle for a long time to come. What we are doing, and have been doing, just isn’t working.

In England, the number of children going into hospital for extractions is up again. The equivalent of 170 operations a day were carried out among the under-18s during 2016-17.[i]Tooth decay is completely preventable, so how on earth is it the number-one reason for child hospital admissions by some margin?

With the latest figures naming and shaming the ‘second-class service’ in England, dental groups pointed out how it lacks a child oral health programme, unlike Wales and Scotland. Designed to Smile (Wales) and Childsmile (Scotland) have helped reduce childhood decay and treatment costs. England has Starting Well, which focuses on practice-based initiatives to improve the oral health of the under-fives, but it is only active in a handful of high-priority areas.[ii]

We simply can’t sit back and wait for the government to send resources our way. Blame isn’t particularly helpful, either. On a related note, a study published in the British Medical Journalfound that anti-obesity programmes in primary schools are similarly ineffective.[iii]The research found no improvements in children’s diet or activity levels after implementing a programme in over 600 schools that included things like healthy cooking workshops and the daily opportunity to do 30 minutes of additional exercise (perhaps the key word here is ‘opportunity’). Perhaps predictably, when this report was published, the majority of comments on the article were pointing the finger in the direction of parents.[iv]For their part, the researchers said that families, the wider community and the sugar industry were probably more influential that what happens at school. For example, parents who lead an active lifestyle are more likely to have children who do too.

Rising childhood obesity levels and poor dental health go hand-in-hand.[v]So what about parental responsibility and children’s dental health? Are parents really helping to raise a generation of orally unhealthy children, who will be more vulnerable to systemic diseases and therefore place an even greater strain on healthcare systems?

We eat differently than we did decades ago as well. For both general and dental health, it’s now widely accepted that sugar is the big enemy. Our increased consumption of it has facilitated the most dramatic change to the health landscape over the last century and no discussion of children’s dental health is complete without acknowledging that the food industry has to play its part in improving the statistics. The food categories that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intake aren’t all obvious – breakfast cereals and yogurts are included alongside cakes and biscuits.[vi]Hidden sugars are a problem for many well-meaning – and often busy – parents. Carbohydrates form the basis of our meals now, which they didn’t 50 years ago. Compare a meal you’d find on many tables in the UK in 2018 – a bowl of white pasta served with a ready-made sauce – to a meat and vegetable-based meal that used to be more typical. For all sorts of reasons, including cost and convenience, we now eat way more sugars and are paying the price in poor health.

In recognition of the sugar problem, a tax will be introduced this year, taxing the soft drinks industry for total sugar content over 5g per 100ml. The levy has its critics – there are exemptions and there is nothing to stop a consumer buying a more expensive product – but it is a step in the right direction. Public Health England has also launched a Change4Lifecampaign encouraging parents to look for “100-calorie snacks, two a day max” in order to control their children’s sugar intake.

Another important layer for solving the children’s oral health problem is daily preventive oral-care practices. It is only by understanding how a clean mouth actuallyfeels that patients can learn the skills to do this at home. Empowering children and adults to clean properly by using the right tools is fundamental. A gentle clean, using a brush that can be gripped easily and manipulated to reach all areas of the mouth will keep it healthy in-between dental visits. Tandex has a comprehensive range of tools that patients of all ages can use.

We must keep children’s dental health in the news to improve the statistics. Simply telling people what to do isn’t working; we need a commitment to sustained action to reverse poor habits that have been decades in the making. Rather than attacking easy targets – like parents – we should constantly look for solutions to a complex problem.


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[i]More children having teeth out in hospital in England. BBC News, 13 January 2018. Link: February 2018).

[ii]NHS England. Starting Well. Information found at link: February 2018).

[iii]Effectiveness of a childhood obesity prevention programme delivered through schools, targeting 6 and 7 year olds: cluster randomised controlled trial (WAVES study). BMJ 2018; 360:k211.

[iv]Anti-obesity programmes in primary schools ‘don’t work’. BBC News, 8 February 2018. Link: February 2018).

[v]Childhood obesity: a plan for action., published 20 January 2017. Link: February 2018).

[vi]Childhood obesity: a plan for action.

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