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Mothers shape their children’s smiles

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By: Dr Noorhidayah Zainal Aalam, Assoc Prof Dr Lily Azura Shoaib

The celebration of Mother’s Day started in the early 1900s by an American social activist, Anna Jarvis, in memory of her late mother. The observance day honours the invaluable role of mothers as domestic caregivers, recognising their selfless devotion to their families. Maternal bonding, the deep emotional tie between a mother and baby, develops gradually throughout the first year after birth. Some suggested that this bonding process may even begin during pregnancy. The special bond between these two is undeniably important, and researchers all around the world have been investigating their relationship in various fields. This unique relationship between a mother and her child refers to the term ‘mother-child dyads’, often characterised by shared experiences and mutual influence.

The earliest mother-child dyads are formed during breastfeeding, where nourishment and comfort are provided through direct physical contact. As they grow, these dyads are achieved through playtimes, mealtimes, and learning activities together. A healthy mother-child dyad can be developed during mealtimes, for example where both eat healthy and nutritious food together and bond through conversation.

One of the underrated roles of mothers in the mother-child dyads is looking after their child’s teeth. In oral health, these dyads usually share their dental decay experience with the transmission of bacteria responsible for causing caries, through shared eating utensils. Other factors, such as genetics and the surface of the teeth, also play a role. Approximately 7 out of 10 children in Malaysia have early childhood caries. It is a fact that a child’s likelihood of developing early childhood caries is higher if the mother has experienced dental decay compared to mothers with no caries. This coincidence reflects the mother’s knowledge and attitudes toward family dietary choices and oral hygiene habits.

Sharing eating utensils with young children might be challenging to avoid, especially in a busy household. Adopting baby-led weaning (BLW) may decrease the likelihood of cariogenic bacteria transmission from mother to child. BLW is an approach to introducing solid foods to weaning babies where they feed themselves at around 6 months old, instead of the traditional spoon-feeding by an adult. With BLW, babies are exposed to a balanced diet through various textures and whole foods and are less exposed to sugary or processed food. A low-sugar and highly nutritious diet can help reduce the risk of developing early childhood caries. Chewing on solid foods can stimulate saliva production too, which helps neutralise acids in the mouth and remineralise teeth. While the link between BLW and dental caries has yet to be explored, those factors might have beneficial effects on dental decay and should be considered when introducing solid foods to a baby.

Globally, paediatric dental specialists recommend that babies have their first dental check-up when the first tooth erupts or by age one. Early detection of deep fissures on teeth surfaces or teeth defects caused by genetic factors can prevent the occurrence of early childhood caries. Early visits to the dentists allow personalised oral health advice and preventive measures for infants as well as providing opportunity to identify any potential oral health problems earlier. For example, teeth with deep fissures may be sealed with specialised cement to prevent food impaction. The dentist may apply a varnish containing fluoride on the child’s teeth if the risk of developing dental decay is high.

Most of the time, very young children rely on their mothers for their daily care. Thus, mothers must start good dental health habits early, like brushing their children’s teeth before bed, which has been proven to reduce the child’s risk of tooth decay. Mothers and caregivers should practice good oral health habits and be good role models for their children to prevent cavities.

Mother’s Day is not just a celebration but also a reminder of the significant role mothers play in shaping their children’s lives, including oral health. The impact of mothers on their children’s oral health is increasingly recognised, with scientific research highlighting the link between maternal dental health and the likelihood of early childhood caries in their children. This underscores the importance of early intervention, education, and support for all families, regardless of socioeconomic status. Truly, mothers are the ones who shape their children’s oral health from cradle to smile, guiding them towards healthier, brighter futures and brighter smiles.

Happy Mother’s Day!

The authors are from the Department of Paediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics, Faculty of Dentistry, Universiti Malaya. They may be reached at noorhidayah.zaalam@um.edu.my and lilyazura@um.edu.my

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