The rise of the tooth fairy

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A number of the blogs I’ve written have touched on the idea that the parent-child dynamic has been changing over time. Terms likes ‘helicopter’ and ‘snow plough’ parents’ have emerged to describe behaviour which is ostensibly driven by the urge to see our children do well but can unwittingly have an adverse effect on them. It would seem that for some of us parents the desire to ensure that our kids reach their full potential, or at the very least avoid the disappointment of failure, can become a little obsessional.

This desire to push our children is often partnered with a preoccupation in protecting them from any conceivable threat, no matter how trivial or insignificant. I was surprised to learn therefore that as a country we have let some real dangers very close to home elude our watchful gaze. I refer of course to a number of articles that have appeared in the media recently detailing the growing dentistry crisis amongst our kids. The figures reveal that the number of children losing rotten teeth each year has apparently reached epidemic proportions. The alarming levels of tooth decay in children in the UK are according to research now the most common reason for hospital admissions amongst five to nine year olds in England. This is clearly, in addition to other concerns, an unnecessary burden on already over stretched NHS. If there was a case for easy pre-emptive measures to reduce the financial burden on this country’s healthcare system this has to be it.

The response to the crisis has been varied. The Royal College of Surgeons has strongly advised parents to brush their children’s teeth for them. This in itself is not particularly revelatory and would have gone unremarked upon, save for the almost comic recommendation that we should continue to do so until the age of 14 when adult teeth are fully formed. All I can say is, good luck with that. Top dental surgeons have further recommended that strong images depicting poor dental hygiene in children should be placed on junk food packaging to deter or reduce consumption. More controversially The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recommended that teeth brushing in primary school and nurseries should be mandatory in certain areas with high levels of tooth decay. They further recommend that free toothbrushes and toothpaste should be handed out for use at school and at home.

Professor Nigel Hunt, dean of the Royal College of Surgeons’ dental faculty, says sugary drinks and food are the chief culprits. He believes these products should carry warnings similar to those on cigarette packets.

‘In the same way as we have with smoking, that smoking can cause lung cancer and so on, we should be saying high levels of sugar will lead to not only poor oral health and decay but the impact on general health,’ he said.

In an interview with the Sunday Times he went on to say that: ‘We are reaching crisis point in terms of the number of children needing to go into the dental hospitals for full-blown general anaesthetics for extraction.’

This is borne out by statistics which reveal that each year there are around 26,000 cases of children aged between five and nine requiring to have teeth extracted under general anaesthetic. These figures are clearly significant and it is not difficult to understand why services are struggling to cope.

In many areas of the country, children face a six month wait and in some hard hit areas times are closer to a year. The Sunday Times reported that extractions are taking place on evenings and weekends to keep up with demand and clear the back log. The overall figure for children in need of tooth removal is reportedly somewhere in the region of 46,500 each year. The Department of Health spokesman has talked about long term changes to help resolve the crisis,

‘We are radically changing NHS dentistry, so that dentists will be paid for keeping the nations’ teeth healthy, rather than just for treating problems as they arise. We have asked for expert advice about the amount of sugar we should be eating, which will be published soon, and this will be taken into account as we continue to work on our childhood obesity strategy. NHS dentistry is free for children and we strongly recommend parents take children for regular check-ups.’

I’m afraid that chocolate is a one way road. Once a child has it, that’s it. You can reduce the amount, but that genie is never going back in the bottle. And why should it? A treat once in a while is a good thing, but maybe I’ll be checking a little more carefully in the future.

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