Staying healthy begins at your mouth - not just the food you eat, but how you care for your teeth and gums. Emerging science suggests a link between a healthy mouth and a healthy body. That's why paying attention to oral health can improve the health of mothers, their families and even their newborn babies.
As a mother with three young children and a baby, Jaime Warembourg scrambles to get the healthcare her family needs. She's glad she discovered a low-cost clinic in Louisville, Colorado, known as Dental Aid. "It's been a great benefit for these guys," she says, "'cause they have all their teeth, unlike their mom."
While her older daughter has her checkup, Jaime details how she plans to help 4-week-old Alex stay strong and healthy through lessons she's learned here at Dental Aid. For instance, when Alex's teeth start coming in, she won't give him a bottle to help him fall asleep. That's because she now knows that juices and milk, sitting in a baby's mouth, can lead to cavities.
But it turns out that, long before Alex was born, he may have benefited from the regular care his mother was getting at Dental Aid. According to the American Academy of Periodontology, a baby is more likely to be born full term, and at a normal weight, when the expectant mother has healthy gums and teeth. "Pregnant women who have periodontal disease," explains Academy president Dr. Ken Krebs, "were shown to be seven times more likely to have a baby born too soon or too small."
Periodontologists specialize in the treatment of gum disease. That's a condition whose most common symptom is gums that bleed during brushing or flossing, and it's one that's usually easy to treat. That's a priority for the non-profit group, Health Volunteers Overseas, which has a program linking U-S and Canadian dentists with training programs for dental professionals in developing nations around the world, including Cambodia, Vietnam and Nicaragua.
Whether in the U.S. or abroad, Krebs says that prevention of gum disease is a great boost to the health of an expectant mom. And, it's also a way to improve the chance of a baby being born healthy. This, in turn, can lower healthcare costs. "Without complications, a pregnancy generally costs about $1,700 in the hospital," Krebs points out. "On the other hand, an infant born too soon or too small averages about $77,000."
Baby Alex got a better chance because during his mom's pregnancy, she got affordable checkups through a Dental Aid program called, Bright Smiles. Clinic president Karen Cody Carlson says that a key component of that program is education. "Every single pregnant mom wants to do the best she can for that baby," she observes. "But if you don't know or you haven't had any education regarding nutrition and oral health care, you don't have the tools that you need to be the most effective."
Sometimes improving gum care is as simple as learning how to brush and floss. Or it can involve a general tooth cleaning by a dental professional. For severe cases, treatment can take time, under anesthesia. Whatever care an expectant mother gets, Carlson says - and the county's data shows - that the Bright Smiles program is making a difference. "What we have found is that if you count the last two years of data, the low birth weight rate among mothers is 8.3%. In the mothers in our population, it's 7.4%. We think we are contributing to lowering the low birth weight rate in the population that comes to us."
She adds that when families understand the value of healthy teeth, they tend to brush more, floss more, and even watch the snacks they eat. That's been the case for Jaime and her children. And once baby Alex starts cutting teeth, his mom says she'll schedule him for a regular checkup, just like the rest of the family.