Monday, October 29, 2012

Protecting our pearly whites

One dad in Jennnifer Messenger Heilbronner's study was adamant. His kids don't drink soda. It's bad for them.

But during his interview — part of a study on how to improve oral health among low-income kids — researchers noticed that the man's baby was sitting on the floor, drinking something bright purple from a bottle.

What's that? researchers wanted to know.

"Kool-Aid," the father said. "The baby loves it, and it comes in a convenient packaging that's just the right size to make a bottle."

He was astonished when the researchers told him there was just as much sugar in one of those packets as in soda.

Lack of knowledge about what was bad for their kids' teeth was one of the key barriers to low-income parents taking good care of their children's teeth, said Heilbronner, who presented the findings during a Monday session on "Communicating with the Public to Improve Oral Health."

Studies have found that 20 percent of the population has 80 percent of dental caries, Heilbronner said. Her company, the social change communication firm Metropolitan Group, worked with Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation to figure out how to better change attitudes and teach parents how best to care for the teeth of children ages 0-3.

"This is really about getting inside the lifestyle and the mindset of the people we're trying to reach and the communities we're trying to engage," she told session attendees.

Researchers conducted in-clinic and at-home interviews with low-income families and found that a number of factors combine to lead to poor oral care. Kids sometimes have inconsistent care — parents who care for their teeth, but grandparents or babysitters who do not. Plus, junk food has great appeal and dental care can be expensive.

Heilbronner said the good news is that parents recognize the value of good oral health and are willing to make changes.

"There's a common agreement that healthy teeth play a role in parents' dreams for their children," she said. "They would say, 'You don't ever see a doctor or a successful person who doesn't have teeth.'"

That desire for their children's success and education later in life could prove a key motivator for parents to encourage good oral health, Heilbronner said.

Finally, she said, public health folks know that disease often penetrates through generations. And it's true, she said, that parents who model poor health tend to have less healthy children. Luckily, prevention is also passed down through the family.

"This really has to be something that we're building over generations," she said. "We have to find and seize that pivotal moment when a parent decides that just because their parent didn't teach them healthy habits, they will teach those habits to their own children."

— C.T.

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