Guest Column: Baby teeth matter more than one may think

Published 10:00 pm Friday, September 29, 2017

Guest Column, By Tim Penny

As anyone who has chipped a tooth knows, dental issues are distracting. Imagine having to be in elementary school and embarrassed to smile for school photos, unable to enjoy snack time and unable to concentrate in class because of untreated cavities.

Tim Penny

Unfortunately, this is the reality for too many kids. Dental caries, or cavities, are the leading chronic disease among children in the U.S., according to a 2014 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This is largely an awareness issue; tooth decay is one of the most preventable diseases.

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Just because baby teeth fall out doesn’t mean they’re not important. Baby teeth are the mold that adult teeth grow into. They also allow children to eat, speak properly and hold space for permanent teeth. It’s important to start brushing a child’s mouth as soon as teeth emerge. Kids should never be put to bed with a bottle. A baby’s teeth start to develop around the third month of pregnancy, so it’s also important for pregnant women to get dental check-ups because their teeth and gums are more susceptible to bacteria, which can then spread to the baby.

Chances are this may be new information to many. Not only is there lack of awareness, but lack of access to dentists. According to the 2016 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, for every 1,500 Minnesotans, there is only one dentist. This is worse in rural counties (2,840:1 in Faribault County, 2,770:1 in Watonwan County, for example).

Additionally, many families do not have dental insurance or are underinsured. If they’re on Medicaid, it’s hard to find a dentist who can see kids because the reimbursement rates put financial stress on dentists. According to a recent Star Tribune article, “only 37 percent of children on medical assistance in Minnesota received preventive dental care in 2015.” This is below the national rate of 46 percent, putting low-income families especially at risk of facing childhood tooth decay issues.

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation has partnered with three other Minnesota Initiative Foundations to help address the issues of awareness and access through the Early Childhood Dental Network. The foundations received financial assistance from Otto Bremer Trust; since 2013, Otto Bremer has awarded almost $6 million in grants for a variety of early childhood dental initiatives.

SMIF has worked in five of its 20 counties (Blue Earth, Brown, Martin, Nicollet and Rice) to seed an Early Childhood Dental Network, always in partnership with one of its existing Early Childhood Initiative communities. Recently, the Early Childhood Dental Networks launched an awareness campaign about not putting your child to bed with sugary drinks.

Rice County’s Early Childhood Dental Network has gone further to address the “cost gap,” where parents can’t afford care and dentists can’t accept patients on Medicaid. They’ve used SMIF’s grant to create a grant program that reimburses dentists $100 for underinsured children; two clinics are currently participating. They also borrowed an idea from Brown County to partner with the county public health office to send a letter from the “tooth fairy” to parents with 1-year-olds, letting them know they need to start visiting a dentist as soon as teeth come in.

“With my own kids, I knew that the health of their mouth correlated with their overall health, but even I wasn’t taking my kids to the dentist soon enough,” said Rice County Early Childhood Dental Network Coordinator Ellen Haefner.

Across our region, these Early Childhood Dental Networks are coming up with creative, short-term solutions to ensure our kids are set up for success. However, we need to encourage policies that understand that early investments in dental care save dollars down the road in related health care costs. Baby teeth matter; the health of our kids reflects the health of our communities.

You can learn more about SMIF’s Early Childhood Dental Network at

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the president and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.