One in five U.S. children ages 2-5 has untreated dental caries, which is another term for cavity or decay. For preschoolers in poverty, the rate is even higher: one in four has untreated decaying teeth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some of the reasons cited by health experts for the caries in such young children include sugared drinks, giving infants and toddlers a bottle of milk or juice at naptime or bedtime, lack of a nutritious diet, lack of professional dental checkups and failure of parents to ensure their children's teeth are brushed twice a day.
The problems caused by decayed teeth, even in baby teeth, have both immediate and long-term consequences, which is why the McMillen Center for Health Education, 600 Jim Kelley Blvd., has ramped up its dental education services for preschoolers, says Holli Seabury, the center's CEO. Seabury has written and illustrated a new children's book, “I brush! my teeth,” that is used in the center's new pilot Brush! curriculum targeting low-income preschool children and their parents.
About a year ago, Fort Wayne dentist Dr. Jim Fischer, who sits on the Neighborhood Health Clinics board with Seabury, challenged her to address the growing problem of severe pediatric dental decay.
“I told him I didn't think it was such a problem,” she recalls. “But I did the research and realized this was not only a huge problem, but that it's a problem with long-term effects.”
Decaying baby teeth can affect the child's speech, cause ear and throat infections, disturb sleep and cause inattention and irritability.
“The child will be lethargic because they lack sleep or, for some children, when they become overly tired, they become hyperactive,” Seabury says. Decaying baby teeth can lead to loss of teeth too early. This affects alignment of both baby teeth and permanent teeth.
“These children can have severe jaw problems the rest of their life,” she said.
A sobering statistic Seabury learned in her research: U.S. children, the majority of them low-income, miss 51 million hours of school a year because of dental problems. Decayed teeth affect the child's nutritional intake, too, she says, noting, “Our concern is, if kids' teeth hurt or they're missing teeth, they have a hard time eating healthy foods.”
They are not going to eat the raw carrots and celery and apples, for example. The early food choices set the stage for what the child will eat later in life.
Initially, Seabury and other staff searched for an existing children's book on dental care around which they could develop a literacy-based curriculum. But nothing quite fit the bill, or the few that were possibilities were out of print or other barriers developed. So Seabury set out to write the book herself.
She created a storyboard of the text using her own simple illustrations with the idea of finding a professional illustrator. Those who were approached either were not interested or were too costly.
Thus, Seabury's own storyboard drawings became the final illustrations for the book, “I brush! my teeth.”
McMillen Center Director of Operations and Marketing Frances Brooks provided graphic design for the book, which is published by the center and printed locally.
Throughout the book are insightful activities that encourage learning, parent-child interaction and imagination, all the while imparting information about dental health at a young child's level.
A literacy issue with many lower-income, lower-educated parents is, “If they read to their kids, they read it as fast as possible and don't really do deeper learning by taking time to ask questions,” says Seabury, the mother of seven children.
The hands-on curriculum used during the weekly classroom sessions incorporates science, reading, art and math while “hitting the themes of brushing your teeth twice a day, seeing the dentist and eating healthy foods at the table as a family,” Seabury says.
The latter ties into another McMillen Center for Health Education initiative, the Family Table. This program focuses on evidence that families who eat meals together around the table make better food choices, are more bonded and the children do better in school than families who eat together at a table less than three times a week.
In addition to the book given to each child to read at home with a parent, as well as classroom activities, the Brush! curriculum includes a colorful, easy-to-read, bimonthly newsletter for parents that provides nutrition tips, suggestions on what to do when a child balks at brushing his or her teeth, and other helpful information. Each child receives a toothbrush and a daily brushing chart to use at home.
More than 2,500 children in Head Start and other preschool programs in Allen, DeKalb, Kosciusko, Noble and Whitley counties are participating in the year-long Brush! pilot program. Funding has come from numerous local and regional foundations and from Delta Dental Foundation. The latter plans to take the Brush! curriculum nationwide.