Oral Health Q&A
When did you first become interested in oral health and baby teeth? And why?
I initially chose to study Dentistry after having orthodontic treatment in my teens – it appealed to me as a caring, patient-centred profession. I thought my job would be all about fixing teeth (which I do a lot) but we also have the ability to prevent disease, especially tooth decay, by promoting positive oral health habits.
When I became a parent and gained the precious responsibility of looking after a little human being, there was this whole new world of wonderful, if sometimes daunting, things to learn. I’d previously been someone who would ask ‘why’, but I found myself doing less questioning and more following. That approach felt comfortable and reassuring for many aspects of this marvellous and exhausting role of being a mum.
As I started to find my feet, my curiosity and questioning started to come back. I’m a firm believer in finding out ‘why’, and that, whatever the topic, it leads to greater understanding and even progression and improvement. So, when my first baby started weaning and it struck me that the cups (cups, plural – I tried sooooo many different cups!) were hard to use (so sucky!), or huge (like learning to drink from a bucket!), or just plain awkward, it set me off on a long journey of ‘Why’. That journey directed me to childhood oral health and eventually (by baby number 3!), Babycup First Cups – the little cup that’s kind to baby teeth – was born.
How does your job allow you to make a difference in oral health?
I actually have 2 jobs! I work in an NHS family dental practice where I see patients regularly for check-ups and treatment. This is SO rewarding as I get to engage with young children and their families and share the message of ‘Why Baby Teeth Matter’. I try to use my own experiences as both a mum & a dentist to offer practical advice. I love seeing babies for their 1st dental visit!
Then I also teach trainee dental students in a Paediatric Dentistry department where we teach students practical skills alongside communication. We hope to educate and inspire future dentists to be motivated, empathetic, and understand the importance of health promotion.
Health authorities such as the NHS in England advises using an open cup for little ones in order to encourage sipping which is better for teeth. My part in the oral health jigsaw is to make sipping doable from an early age with my Babycup First Cups mini open weaning cups. Something so seemingly simple as a little cup, can truly make a big difference and the response from families whose little ones use them is so rewarding.
What tips for good oral health do you swear by in your family?
Sooooo many but my top 3 would be;
Brushing twice a day (with a fluoridated toothpaste) – simple but effective. Not always easy with little ones but being consistent, making it fun and building it into the daily routine from when they are young really helps.
An ‘awareness’ of sugars – obviously we do enjoy sweeter foods but in moderation and only at main mealtimes. Frequent snacking means the mouth has less time to recover so I try to limit grazing and encourage family meals. And then for drinks it’s just water, water, water & milk.
Visiting the dentist – even though I work as a dentist I still make sure both myself and my baby go for regular check-ups. It’s important not just for assessment and advice but also to acclimatise him to the surgery environment and build his confidence. He can watch me sit in the chair and have my teeth counted as a form of role modelling, and of course he gets a sticker!
``I believe we should focus on prevention as a priority for everyone`` Jemma
Brushing teeth before breakfast – this didn’t use to be my family’s ‘normal’, but it’s now fully embedded in our morning routine. I can’t even begin to function nowadays without first cleaning my teeth! Brushing teeth before eating may seem counter-intuitive but it’s become a widespread piece of advice for ridding your gums and teeth of decay-implicated baddies.
Be aware of what and how you eat and drink –
The ‘What’ – Avoid juices and fizzy drinks – children shouldn’t have these anyway, avoid them and make milk or water their default drinks; be aware of sugar content; steer clear of sticky foods such as raisins and dried fruit.
The ‘How’ – Be a sipper not a sucker! That goes for food and for drinks. Food pouches are brilliantly useful for carrying or storing yummy goodness but when it comes to eating their contents avoid being a sucker and instead empty them into a bowl or onto a plate, like you would other foods, for use with a spoon and use as part of self-feeding and fine motor skills development.
When it comes to drinks, it’s so long suckers and hello sippers there too – so many ‘cups’ are really bottles in disguise. Go for the real deal and get sipping with an open cup. With a cup that’s the right size for the user you’ll help make sipping a success for your little one and be giving them a healthy habit for life.
Regular check ups – make dental check ups a habit you don’t break, for you and all the family. Even pre-teeth, take babies and young children along for a quick look at their gums and so they get used to the experience and grow up knowing its importance and that it’s a safe place. The British Society of Paediatric Dentistry urges families to take their littlies as early as possible and their DCby1 campaign is aimed at encouraging Dental Checks by One.
*** Please note: during the COVID-19 pandemic routine dental appointments are suspended so check-ups will have to wait. Your dentist can provide urgent care and advice via telephone triage. As this is an evolving situation, please see your dentist’s website for current contact details. ***
What’s your biggest achievement in your dedication to helping families with oral health?
I started my Instagram account @themummydentist when I was on maternity leave to share evidence-based advice for expectant mums, babies & toddlers (and also to find comfort with other sleep deprived new mamas!) This has led to many wonderful opportunities and collaborations with others such as; Sara from Babycup, Brushbaby, weaning superstar nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed and baby food company Babease. I have enjoyed integrating the message of oral health alongside overall wellbeing.
As well as supplying health authorities such as the NHS in England and Regional Health authorities of the Government of Canada, and getting absolutely mind-blowing feedback from them, it’s the photos, films and comments that come in on a daily basis from families who are using Babycup First Cups for weaning, and also cup-feeding, their children. It is so heart-warming to find the sleepless nights that go with trying to grow a business – especially when you are trying to get a new message out there. I’ve been banging on about open cup sipping for many years now! Some ‘Babycup-a-like’ products have since come on to the market, but none in the small and neat way of Babycup First Cups. Our word is growing and growing, we’ve won multiple awards and are exporting around the globe and the feedback from grateful families is growing and growing too. It really and truly means the world.
What worries you most in oral health today?
That every week I still see young children with tooth decay – this is a largely preventable disease and yet one survey in England found by the age of 3, 12% of children had some signs of cavities. Since having my own little one I’ve become more aware of how foods & drinks marketed for infants can be confusing. With a lot of fruit-based products they may appear to be a healthy choice, but often contain lots of free sugars. There is also concerns about the branding and packaging which directly appeals to children.
The baby teeth will eventually fall out but they have so many important functions such as; eating different foods, smiling, maintaining space for guiding adult teeth into position, speech development. I often see young children in pain from poorly teeth. This may lead to disturbed sleep, infections requiring antibiotics, anxiety, time off school (and work for their parents) and sometimes the need to have teeth removed in hospital under a general anaesthetic.
The deliberate confusion caused by cleverly worded claims. Food or drink labels might say ‘good source of calcium’, but read the small print and there might be a high level of sugar lurking there too. ‘Sucky’ cups marketed as sippy cups, when there’s nothing sippy about them at all and terms such as freeflow making it sound like a drink will freely flow…..well maybe if lying flat on your back it will. With labels it’s a case of read it and see and with cups for me it was definitely a case of suck it and see! I tried so many of my eldest’s cups and they made me realise they weren’t what they said on the label! It can feel overwhelming to try and weed through it all. My advice is that more often than not, simplicity is the healthiest option. Look after those little milk teeth, they play an important role.
``Every bit of our body is joined up, nothing works in isolation`` Sara
What’s your vision/wish for families with regards to good oral health in the future?
Oooooh again so much to say and without wanting to sound too Miss Congeniality I would say ‘growing up in a world free from tooth decay’. For this to happen I believe we should focus on;
Prevention being priority for everyone: policy makers, dental professionals and of course patients. As often the current system of primary care dentistry is predominantly focused on the treatment of disease instead.
Access to care for all. Despite the recommendation for regular check-ups in 2018 41.4% of under 18s in England did not visit an NHS dentist, rising to 77% of age between 1-2. The prevalence of tooth decay in children shows inequalities in different parts of the country. We should strive to support all families and identify if there are any barriers to them being able to seek dental care.
I love the vision from Sara Hurley, England’s Chief Dental Officer, for ‘putting the mouth back in the body’.
Every bit of our body is joined up, nothing works in isolation. Let’s treat oral health with every bit as much importance as any kind of health.
I hope that one day we can simply say, ‘health’!
Dr Jemma Hook aka The Mummy Dentist is a mum and a dentist, cutting through the clutter and giving real life guidance with the reassurance of expert knowledge and firsthand experience. (A pretty awesome combo)! Follow Jemma on Instagram @themummydentist for info and advice on caring for children’s teeth plus love and laughter aplenty!
Sara Keel is a mum and the founder of Babycup, as well as a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood.
You can buy Babycup First Cups from leading retailers or directly from the Babycup webshop: Babycup First Cups – buy now