Talking with U of M

Talking children’s dental health with U of M

A girl wearing sunglasses reclines in a dental chair and holds a mirror as she has her teeth cleaned.

Investing early in good dental care for children is an important part of lifelong, full-body health. In recognition of National Children’s Dental Health Month in February, Teresa Fong, a clinical associate professor in the U of M School of Dentistry, answers common questions about children’s oral health.

Q: What are the most important things for parents and families to know about protecting tiny teeth?
Dr. Fong: Even though we eventually lose our baby teeth, they are still important for eating, speaking, giving our face and jaws their shape, saving space for adult or permanent teeth, and — best of all — for sharing the universal language of a smile! It’s important to take care of our children’s teeth as soon as the first ones come in.

Q: When should children first visit the dentist?
Dr. Fong: Try to see the dentist as soon as the first tooth comes into the mouth, or at least by the child’s first birthday. At this first visit, the child will have the chance to get to know the dentist with their caregiver present. The dentist will ask questions to help guide caregivers on establishing tooth-healthy habits, demonstrate oral health care to be done at home and give tips and tricks for children resistant to toothbrushing. The dentist will also perform a dental and oral examination with the assistance of the caregiver. Most importantly, the dentist will talk about things to watch for and answer any questions. Establishing a dental home for the child early in life helps prevent dental problems in the future and gives families the assurance of having a dentist to call if an emergency arises.

Q: How can families help their children practice and maintain good oral health?
Dr. Fong: Help children practice and maintain good dental hygiene by being role models. They can let their child know that they go to the dentist to have their teeth examined and cleaned, using positive descriptions. Reading age-appropriate books about dental visits is also helpful. Some great options can be found at Brightly, an online resource for children’s literature.  

Families can also set routines of brushing and flossing together before bedtime, which helps to both establish the routine and set up healthy habits children will carry throughout their lives.

Q: Families may face barriers when trying to access dental care for their children, particularly related to finances and/or insurance coverage. What suggestions do you have for families struggling to find care?
Dr. Fong: Families face many different financial circumstances when seeking dental care. State-funded resources may be available through the Minnesota Department of Health, and you can talk with your dentist to see if they offer payment plans or other options. Those with insurance through an employer can speak to their human resources department to learn more about coverage plans.

Dentists know barriers exist. This inspired events like the American Dental Association’s annual Give Kids A Smile day, which provides free dental care to children. The U of M School of Dentistry’s student-led event will be held on Saturday, February 3, 2024. Dental care that can be done in one day is provided at no charge, including exams, X-rays, cleanings, fluoride varnish applications, sealants, fillings and tooth removal. Follow-up appointments are also available for children needing additional visits to complete treatment, which are paid for with money our students raise throughout the year. Contact the team at 612-625-3586 for more on the program and appointments.

Q: How is your work at the School of Dentistry involved in improving dental health care for children and their families?
Dr. Fong: The U of M’s Pediatric Dental Clinic offers a dental care home to children from the time their first tooth comes in through age 15. Children come to our clinic for regular check-ups, cleanings, treatment and specialist referrals if needed. Our students and faculty provide individualized assessment and care aimed to help children and their families maintain the best oral health possible and to prevent dental problems from arising.

Dr. Teresa L. Fong is a board-certified pediatric dentist. Dr. Fong was in private practice with Metropolitan Pediatric Dental Associates, Ltd. for over 30 years, during which she taught part-time in the predoctoral pediatric dental clinic at the U of M School of Dentistry. Dr. Fong retired from active private practice at the end of 2019 and is now working as a clinical associate professor in the U of M School of Dentistry, helping to coordinate the predoctoral clinical rotation in pediatric dentistry. She also teaches part-time in the HealthPartners AEGD program as their pediatric dental specialist. 

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