February is National Children's Dental Health Month, and where better to start a discussion about children's oral health than with the youngest, especially those in our local Head Start program. The National Office of Head Start has partnered with the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry's Foundation for Healthy Smiles, Healthy Children, which helps guarantee that every child enrolled in Head Start has a dental care provider.

The dentists in Billings have rallied to provide support for this initiative. They, along with the Ronald McDonald Van and the RiverStone Health Dental Clinic, have all contributed to the successful garnering of dental access for almost all of the children in the Billings Head Start program.

Access to dental care during the first years of life is critical, but when it comes to oral health, many children face significant challenges. Children in low-income families tend to have higher rates of tooth decay and greater difficulty accessing ongoing basic dental care. Some key facts that highlight the severity of the problem include:

Over 40 to 50 percent of children will be affected by tooth decay before age 5.

Of the 4 million children born each year, more than half will have cavities by the time they reach second grade.

While 9 million children in this nation do not have medical insurance, more than twice that number, 23 million, do not have dental insurance.

Oral health issues affect minorities and children in poverty far more than other groups.

Nutrition is a key to good oral health. Now more than ever, kids are faced with a bewildering array of food choices — from fresh produce to sugar-laden processed convenience meals, drinks and snack foods. What and when children eat and drink may affect not only their general health but also their oral health.

Americans are consuming foods and drinks high in sugar and starches more often and in larger portions than ever before. It's clear that junk foods and drinks have gradually replaced nutritious items for many people. For example, the average teenage boy in the U.S. consumes 81 gallons of soft drinks each year. Alarmingly, a steady diet of sugary foods and drinks can ruin teeth, especially among those who snack or sip throughout the day. When sugar is consumed over and over again in large, often hidden amounts, the harmful effect on teeth can be dramatic. Sugar provides food for bacteria, which produce acid that decays teeth.

Almost all foods have some type of sugar that cannot and should not be eliminated from our diets. Many of these foods contain important nutrients and add enjoyment to eating, but there is a risk for tooth decay from a diet high in sugars and starches. Starches can be found in everything from bread to pretzels to salad dressing, so read labels and plan carefully for a balanced, nutritious diet for you and your kids.

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To reduce your children's risk of tooth decay:

Keep the consumption of sugary foods and drinks to a minimum and only at meals. Saliva production increases during meals and helps neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth.

Limit snacks between meals. If kids crave a snack, offer them nutritious foods.

If your kids chew gum, make it sugarless. Chewing sugarless gum after eating can increase saliva flow and help wash out food and decay inducing acid.

Monitor beverage consumption. Instead of soft drinks, children should drink water and low-fat milk.

Help your children develop good brushing and flossing habits.

Schedule regular dental visits.

Our children deserve the best in oral care for a healthy head start on life.

Michael Downing, DDS, is a dentist with RiverStone Health Dental Clinic. He can be reached at 406-247-3333.

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Michael Downing, DDS, is a dentist with RiverStone Health Dental Clinic. He can be reached at 406-247-3333.