Children Now Insider: Oral Health

Maternal oral hygiene impacts both a woman and her baby

By Eileen Espejo

November 18, 2019

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Women who are pregnant usually require multiple trips to a medical provider to ensure a safe and health pregnancy. Pregnant women and the providers who care for them should also prioritize the pregnant woman’s oral health, which can be just as critical as physical health when pregnant. When a woman is pregnant, she deals with many changes mentally and physically, one of which can be in her mouth, resulting in sore and/or infected gums, loose teeth, and an increased presence of cavities.

Some studies have suggested that oral disease during pregnancy can lead to poor infant outcomes. And women who practice optimal oral hygiene during pregnancy may decrease the amount of caries-producing oral bacteria transmitted to their baby during common parenting behavior, such as sharing spoons or cleaning pacifiers. Moreover, dental care is considered safe – and doctor recommended – during pregnancy; the benefits far outweigh the risks for both the mother and baby, and put them on a path to continued dental health.

Experts recommend at least one dental check-up during pregnancy. Yet in California, although 53 percent of pregnant women report a dental problem, only 42 percent visited a dentist during the course of their pregnancy. For women who are pregnant and enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state does not collect data on women receiving dental services. As a result, we don’t have a true understanding of who is receiving these services, and more importantly, are unable to determine if there are any issues related to access, including whether there are disparities that exist based on race/ethnicity, geographic setting (rural v. urban settings, for example), or other factors. To learn more about the importance of overall maternal health, please read this blog post.

Access to Oral Health Care is Improving

Through a combination of state and local oral health programs, pregnant women are increasingly able to access oral health care services. For example, through a Health Resources and Services Administration federal grant, Sonoma County participated in the Perinatal Infant Oral Health Quality Improvement (QI) initiative, where staff at participating community health centers performed QI practices with the goal of improving access to and quality of dental care received by expectant mothers and infants.

Several local oral health programs have established or are seeking to establish screening and preventive services offered at Women, Infants and Children sites and to link women who are pregnant and/or their young children to dental treatment if needed. Yet others are convening OB/GYNs and dental providers to address commonly held myths about women who are pregnant receiving dental care in order to foster more intentional collaboration among the medical and dental fields.

Additionally, women who are pregnant and enrolled in Medi-Cal also have access to dental services. The Smile, California campaign seeks to educate Medi-Cal members and providers about the importance of oral health to overall health, the services covered by Medi-Cal, and how to find a provider.

But More Can be Done to Ensure 100% Participation 

Improving data collection among pregnant women enrolled in Medi-Cal is an important step to identifying and eliminating barriers and ensuring equitable access to oral health care.

Additionally, stronger integration and collaboration among medical and dental providers can help to address and bridge any divides that may exist, and increased education among the medical and dental fields, as well as coordination to ensure that pregnant women understand the relationship of oral health to their overall health – and their baby’s health – is critical to providing a foundation of oral health for the future.

In an ideal California, all children will reach the age of three being cavity free, based in large part on their mothers having established good oral health hygiene habits during pregnancy, and understanding the importance of preventive services for themselves and their children as they grow. This can only be possible, however, if the state commits to investing in current oral health programs and services, so that they are available to all babies, children and families that need them.