EGION — With tooth decay rates among youth in Cochise County approaching 50%, dentists are advising parents to have their children’s teeth checked by their first birthday, or when the first teeth are visible.

That recommendation comes through Brianna Hillier, director of dental services for Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc. (CCHCI) and is echoed by dental professionals throughout the country.

“If I could get every parent in the door with their children at (age) one, then get those children started on a biannual dental program, it would be a huge step in preventing future oral health problems,” Hillier said.

Visiting the dentist at a young age is essential in establishing a healthy oral routine, noted Hillier. “This early exposure creates a sense of familiarity and trust for the patient as well as the parent, and can be the foundation for a lifetime of positive dental experiences.”

First Things First, a statewide organization that supports the development, health and early education of children from birth to 5 years old, also points to a gap in parental awareness when it comes to dental care in young children.

“Proper dental care is a huge problem for families in Southeastern Arizona and many parents have no idea they should regularly take their children to the dentist as early as their first birthday,” First Things First stated in a press release.

“Recent statistics show that 46 percent of young children in Cochise County have experienced tooth decay, and 31 percent of young children have untreated tooth decay. These numbers are alarming because if left untreated, tooth decay in children’s primary teeth can increase their risk of future problems.”

Along with damaged permanent teeth, lack of early dental care can lead to susceptibility of infections in other parts of the body, delayed or impaired speech development, and decreased self-esteem.

“Many parents aren’t aware that by age 5, about 60 percent of U.S. children have oral health issues,” says Melissa Avant, First Things First Regional Director for the Cochise Region. “This percentage can be drastically reduced by teaching children good oral hygiene habits at an early age.”

Daycare centers are incorporating dental hygiene practices in their programs, with kids as young as a one year learning how to brush.

“We use fun props for the kids — like Alex the Alligator as a model — and show the kids how to use a toothbrush” said Dena Andon, director of Shepherd’s Fold, a Sierra Vista-based childcare center that accepts children from infants to five years old. The youngsters are given tiny toothbrushes and child-friendly toothpaste, provided by a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension program.

“We brush teeth with the children at least three times a week, sometimes more often,” Anderson said. “We have a lot of parents who are truly surprised that kids should get started with dental care this young. We also use ‘Spiffy Wipes’ on gums of babies to keep them from getting caked with formula and baby food.”

Gently wiping a baby’s gums goes a long way in helping youngsters transition into brushing once teeth begin to appear, Anderson said.

A new Chiricahua Sierra Vista Family Dental Center, located at 115 Calle Portal, next door to the CCHCI pediatric center, has a special area for children, with a goal of making the dental experience a positive one, said Hillier, who holds community outreach presentations.

“One of our greatest challenges is reaching families in underserved, rural areas where there are no dental clinics. We now have a Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, which is a full-service clinic on wheels.”

The clinic brings a dentist office to the communities of Bisbee, Benson, McNeal, Elfrida and Pearce. Mobile dental service schedules vary. For information, call 520-642-2222 or go to cchci.org.

“We embed dental hygienists into some of our health centers in order to provide dental services right alongside medical and behavioral health,” Hillier said. “Chiricahua also has a beautiful, state-of-the-art Care Mobile from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona. The Care Mobile essentially allows us to bring the dentist office out to some of the more underserved communities and schools through Cochise County and provides dental services to children of all ages.”

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