The Fifth Dentist Hands Out Slushees
The first time I took our son to the dentist, he was three years old. We’d showed him how to use a toothbrush as soon as that first little chicklet of a tooth appeared, and we’d talked up his first dentist trip. You’d have thought the boy was going to meet Santa himself, the way we hyped it up.
We have been very fortunate to have good dental care – there are about 17 million kids in our country who don’t, which means that more than 50 million school hours are missed because of dental problems and accompanying infections. We wanted our son to grow up being familiar with his dentist and medical care providers, to be confident enough to ask questions of them, and – most importantly – to learn good self-care habits.
Dentists are, in my opinion, some pretty brave people. These are people who put their (gloved) hands into what is essentially a giant pool of bacteria and utensils (teeth). Not my cup of tea. They aren’t our nation’s first line of defense, or anything like that, but I do still have an enormous amount of respect for them.
Back to the bacteria, or as we call it, “cavity bugs” or my other favorite “tooth dirt.” The big bad bacteria of the mouth – the one that causes cavities – is streptococcus mutans. That’s right, it’s in the same family of bugaboos that causes strep throat. When this strep is introduced to sugar, it produces an acid that is mostly neutralized by saliva. But if a person, say, drinks a couple of sugary juice boxes or eats a handful of candy corn, the saliva is overwhelmed by acid. Ultimately, exposure to that acid damages your teeth’s protective enamel and causes cavities. If you have cavities, you get fillings, which means drills, which nobody wants, and that brings us back to my son’s first visit to the dentist at age three.
So at his monumental first dental visit, my preschooler got to look around the dentists’ office, look at the big chair and the lights and the tray of shiny instruments. He giggled when the hygienist counted his teeth and talked to him about “tooth dirt” and showed him how to brush and floss waaaay back in the back of his little mouth. He was happy. I felt like an awesome, proactive mom.
When it was time to go, I was riding a happy wave of attentive motherhood, until the dentist said, “Okay buddy, you’ve done such a great job today that you get to pick two treats.” Two treats? This is amazing. Little guy is going to look forward to coming to the dentist, and we’re going to avoid hours of nasty arguments and complaining and tears. Huzzah.
“First, you have to tell me what flavor you like, raspberry or green apple?” He walked us over to a countertop where there was a giant slushy machine, churning up great troughs of blue and green frothy syrup. My son’s eyes widened and he looked at me for permission. I laughed and said “Setting yourself up for repeat business, eh? Quite a deal.” Then a rather obnoxiously large serving of frozen blue goodness was passed down to my son’s eager hands, who received the treasure as though it were, well, actual treasure.
The dentist was a good sport and he laughed, then he reached behind a counter and pulled out a giant white plastic tub with a smiling tooth outlined on the front. He plunked the plasticware down on the countertop with a huge thunk. The tub was filled with packets of Trident gum in all flavors imaginable.
* Insert record scratch sound effect here.*
“Um, gum? Am I in the right place? Isn’t this a dentist’s office?” I asked. I felt like looking around for the camera crew, because surely this was some kind of reality tv show or prank on unsuspecting overcautious mothers.
Thankfully, the dentist was a good-humored man and laughed with me. He explained that yes, he is actually handing out gum. He said that, especially for younger children, gum that contains xylitol is beneficial. It has been proven to prevent cavities in children by inhibiting the growth of bacteria – strep bacteria, in particular, are unable to metabolize xylitol.
In fact, the United States Army’s Public Health Command recommends that soldiers and their families chew xylitol-sweetened chewing gum.
So, it would appear that much in the world of tooth health has changed since I was a kid. I’m working hard to embrace the change, and as a result, I am now fully immersed in a bubble-blowing contest with my son. I can’t help but wonder, though, why – if sugar-free gum is good for us – gum is still banned in schools across the country. Even a few minutes chew-time after lunch would probably help kids who don’t get regular dental care. As long as the kids and teachers follow the “he who sticks it, picks it” rule, the desk and carpet scraping could be minimal.
Were you aware of the Army’s gum-chewing recommendation? Are there other health-related tips you’ve received in the military that you’d like to share? Comment below!