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A Smile You Made Possible

A child’s smile warms the heart, and thanks to donations to the Children’s Hospital Foundation, we are learning how to get that healthy smile and keep it for a lifetime.

Dr. Bob Schroth, Associate Professor and Clinician Scientist in the Department of Preventive Dental Science (College of Dentistry) and the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health (College of Medicine) at the University of Manitoba and a member of CHRIM (Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba), has determined that achieving a healthy smile starts early.

“Our research really focuses on infant and pre-school oral health,” says Dr. Schroth. “We know that this is the time to make sure we can set kids up on the right foundation for a lifetime of good dental health. If we keep kids in that period cavity free we know that throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood years, they will be much less likely to develop tooth decay.”

Tooth decay in youth is more common than you may think. Approximately 50 dental surgeries take place at Children’s Hospital each month. That amounts to over 600 dental surgeries annually and as with any surgery, it comes with certain risks and hardships.

“It can be quite traumatic for the child,” says Dr. Schroth. “Particularly when you consider that the average age for that surgery is about 3 years old. It’s quite shocking. Although some kids are just unlucky in the way their teeth form, I do think most of these surgeries are largely preventable. It’s hard to admit that some families have accepted dental surgery as the norm and we need to find a way to get people to understand that it doesn’t have to happen this way. “

Although lack of care is still a key cause of tooth decay, Dr. Schroth’s research is leading to an understanding that there’s much more to it.

“When we examined what puts kids at risk for tooth decay in early childhood we discovered that things like late initiation of tooth brushing and a bottle at bedtime (particularly one containing sugary liquids) increases risk,” explains Dr. Schroth. “We are also finding that children who are breastfed are at a decreased risk for early childhood tooth decay and good pre-natal health is extremely important.”

As a vehicle to promote dental care as a key component in overall health, Dr. Schroth and his team developed the program Healthy Smile, Happy Child, which has proven to be very successful.

“This program is about health promotion with a tie-in to the lens of research and evaluation,” says Dr. Schroth. “We recognize that if we’re going to promote oral health it’s responsible to find out what works for certain communities, what doesn’t work, and how to tweak it.”

Dr. Schroth’s research has identified 4 groups of Manitoba children at risk for tooth decay; kids living in poverty, those in rural areas, First Nations/ Indigenous populations (particularly those living in isolated areas), and newcomer/refugee populations. Identifying at risk groups is the first step in finding a solution for each unique community.

“Healthy Smile, Happy Child is based on a community-development approach,” explains Dr. Schroth, “because what may work in one community doesn’t necessarily work in another. So we have relied on key messages and resources, provided by the foundation, to deliver our messaging.”

The Children’s Hospital Foundation not only provides the physical space to house Healthy Smile, Happy Child, but has also provided funding for crucial follow up studies, and has directly impacted the life path of Dr. Schroth.

“My own research program has benefitted tremendously from the foundation,” remarks Dr. Schroth, “not only in terms of office space, but also the financial investment of operating funds. Even as a trainee doing my PhD, the foundation funded me with post-doctoral training, so I’ve had this on-going support that helped us to grow our program. Healthy Smile, Happy Child, now in its 16th year, has been nationally recognized as an important program in Canada, which is amazing, and wouldn’t have happened without the support of the Children’s Hospital Foundation.”

April is Oral Health Month, and a perfect opportunity to deliver key messages from the Healthy Smile, Happy Child Program. They include a visit to a dentist by 12 months, to aim for a healthy diet and always remember that brushing is very important. Dr. Schroth has one thing in particularly he’d like parents to know;

“Those baby teeth do matter,” he says. “We can take preventive measures during pregnancy with good diet and good prenatal care, and set every child on a solid foundation with their dental health. In North America every other age group is showing improvement in oral health, except the 0–5 year olds, which actually shows a trend of increased tooth decay.”

The hope to turn this trend around lies in research.

“Investment in research leads to improvements in how care is delivered to young kids and how to prevent tooth decay,” says Dr. Schroth. “The more knowledge that we gain may ultimately result in fewer surgeries, which then means cost avoidance and frees health resources for other issues.”

Donations to the Children’s Hospital Foundation have had a huge impact on the oral health of Manitoba’s kids, and continued investment promises to take us even further.

“Without donor dollars Healthy Smile, Happy Child would never have gotten off the ground,” says Dr. Schroth. “Many dental surgeries take place when the child is so young that they may not get their permanent teeth for several years. It can be a long window of time when kids may be teased and they often endure some terrible times. It’s particularly heartbreaking as it is theoretically largely preventable. We need to figure out how to get off of this reliance on dental surgery. Continued investment in the Children’s Hospital Foundation will give us the tools to get there.”