There’s mountains of advice out there for expecting parents, and a lot of that information is either contradictory or has a clear conflict of interest. Some of our own consultants have mentioned how difficult it is for their patients to work through all the parenting advice out there. Advice on oral health tends to be just one more drop in the bucket.
It doesn’t help that the dental field, too, is filled with so much information about products and procedures. New and expectant mothers want to do right for their child, but often just don’t have the time to figure out what “the right thing” is when it comes to dentistry and oral health.
So, as a gift to mothers everywhere for Mother’s Day, we here at the Dental Health Society wanted to help new and expectant mothers sift through that mountain of information. We pored over a good deal of objective research, looking for recommendations without promoting any particular product or procedure.
Here’s what the preponderance of research is showing:
1. Women who are pregnant are more susceptible to certain oral health problems
Oral health is important for everyone, of course. No one is immune from oral health problems. But women who are pregnant have some increased risks.
According to the American Dental Association, nearly 60% to 75% of pregnant women have gingivitis (compared with 30% of adults in the population at large). Gingivitis is a condition where the gums become inflamed, and it is usually the first stage of periodontal disease (a.k.a. gum disease). Current theories suggest that inflamed gums could be the result of fluctuating hormones during pregnancy. And periodontal disease, in turn, is a clinically significant risk factor for preterm deliveries and low birth weight.
Outside of gum disease, pregnant women often face changes to their diets as well. Many pregnant mothers report new cravings for sweets at certain points in their pregnancy. Sugary snacks and drinks have been shown to contribute to the formation of cavities and require mothers to be more on top of their oral health habits.
Finally, morning sickness during pregnancy can lead to vomiting, which in turn can cause acid erosion of the teeth. Mothers need to take extra care to neutralize that acid so it does not eat away at the teeth and gums.
Also note that many pregnant mothers report new growths in their mouths, sometimes called pregnancy tumors. These typically appear on the gums and have a red-raspberry color and bumpy shape. They might also be prone to bleeding. Though they might be a little disconcerting at first, they are totally harmless and usually disappear soon after birth.
2. Good oral health means better overall health for mother and baby
Of course, good oral health takes time, and that’s not exactly something an expectant mother has a lot of. But there are good reasons why expectant mothers should make the time.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several health conditions that are linked to poor overall oral health. These include things like endocarditis (infection of the inner lining of your heart), cardiovascular disease, sinus infections, and even premature stroke. Recent studies have even made a link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Outside of general health, there’s an additional reason why expectant mothers should worry about their oral health: It might well be better for their baby. As mentioned above, periodontal disease tends to be a risk factor for premature birth and low birth weight. It’s currently unknown whether periodontal disease causes these things, or whether they are both caused by inadequate diet and self-care. Still, there’s reason for caution.
A mother’s oral health matters well after birth, too. Children often look to parents to set the example when it comes to their own self-care. If mom has established good oral care habits, these are much more likely to be passed on to the kids. Starting to cultivate those habits now means not having to have those fights with your kids down the road.
3. Dentistry during pregnancy is safe
Many mothers avoid the dentist while pregnant. They are worried that some of the techniques and treatments might not be safe for their baby. Time and cost are also factors.
These worries are largely unfounded, however. Getting dental work done during pregnancy is safe, for the most part, and can be very important for your dental health. Not only can a professional address some of the health concerns above, but you can rest easy knowing that your cleaning or dental work has been taken care of before the baby is born.
In fact, the Dental Health Society, the American Dental Association, the American Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all encourage women to get dental care while pregnant.
That said, there are a handful of procedures that do merit special consideration:
The dentist’s chair
Sitting or lying in a dentist’s chair is pretty safe. However, lying back for extended periods of time can be uncomfortable, depending on how far along the pregnancy is. Communicate with your dentist to help accommodate you during treatment.
Pregnancy also increases the risk of frequency of nosebleeds and upper respiratory tract infections, which can make it harder to breathe during dental treatment. Again, these can be accommodated if you communicate with your dentist.
Many pregnant mothers are afraid that radiation could hurt their baby. But today’s dental x-rays use almost no radiation and present very little risk to a developing baby. Still, it’s wise to inform the dental technician taking the x-rays that you are pregnant, and to ask him or her if you can have a vest or smock for protecting your abdomen.
Novocaine and Other Anesthetics
If you need an area of your mouth numbed, local anesthetics such as novocaine or lidocaine are safe. (For a full list of drugs a dentist might use that are safe during pregnancy, see table 3 here.) On the other hand, nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) does present a significant pregnancy risk and could harm your baby. If you need any kind of pain medication or anesthetic, inform your dentist that you are pregnant and/or consult with your OB/GYN.
Some women need to take antibiotics to fight dental infections. Common antibiotics like penicillin and amoxicillin are completely safe during pregnancy. Tetracycline is also safe, but there have been cases where it can cause tooth staining, even in a fetus, and so should probably be avoided to prevent problems for your child down the road.