One-third of preschoolers have never seen a dentist and most parents believe children don’t need to see one before they’re three years old. Yet one-quarter of Australian children have tooth decay that requires filling by early primary school. One in ten require an extraction.
Results released today from the latest Royal Children’s Hospital National Child Health Poll also reveal one in three children (33%) aren’t brushing their teeth twice a day and almost half of parents (46%) don’t know that tap water is better for teeth than bottled water.
Rates of tooth decay are on the rise in Australia, particularly among young children. More than 26,000 Australians under the age of 15 are admitted to hospital to treat tooth decay every year. This makes it the highest cause of acute, preventable hospital stays.
Untreated dental disease can cause chronic infection and pain. This can affect a child’s ability to eat, play and learn, and so impact their growth, development and quality of life. It’s also linked to long-term health outcomes like heart disease and diabetes.
Our poll shows that many parents, despite meaning well, lack the basic knowledge to prevent tooth decay in their children. Others are confused when it comes to recommendations about brushing teeth, diet and when to see the dentist for a check-up.
When a child should see the dentist
Children should visit the dentist when their first tooth comes through, or at 12 months of age. Our poll found only 17% of children had seen a dentist by the age of two.
Early visits are essential to provide parents with support and education to help keep their children’s teeth and gums healthy, before teeth break down and start to cause trouble. Children as young as two can require treatment in hospital for severely broken down, infected and painful teeth.
Tooth decay develops over time and early decay can be hard to spot. Starting dental check-ups from 12 months will help identify any red flags and allow parents to make changes to diet and lifestyle. Regular check-ups allow decay to be detected and treated early and more complex and costly treatments avoided. Some children require check-ups more often than others and parents should consult with their dentist on how often their child should go.from shutterstock.com
Seeing a dentist can be costly though. In our poll, one in five parents cited cost as a reason for delaying a visit to the dentist. But many were unaware of the free dental services that may be available to their children. All Australian states and territories offer public dental care to children at no or minimal cost, up to a certain age.
In addition to this, the federal Child Dental Benefits Schedule provides eligible families with up to A$1,000 worth of treatment over two years. This can be used for private as well as public dental services for children aged 2-17. All children in families receiving Parenting Payment or Family Tax Benefit Part A are eligible for the program. One-quarter of eligible families we surveyed weren’t aware of the program.
Ultimately, only dental professionals are registered to provide dental examinations to children. But young children often see a range of healthcare providers for different reasons. Every visit to the GP, pharmacist or child health nurse is an opportunity for dental education and decay prevention. GPs and child health nurses can also help direct families to appropriate and affordable dental services.
When should children brush their teeth?
While brushing once a day is better than not at all, brushing teeth twice a day further reduces the chance of tooth decay. Our poll found one-third of children aren’t brushing their teeth often enough, with one in four parents believing once a day is adequate.
Authors: Anthea Rhodes, Paediatrician and Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Health, Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne