Pregnancy and oral health – Why it’s so important to take care of your teeth and gums
Your teeth and mouth are an often overlooked and neglected area of a woman’s health during pregnancy when most of your medical attention is centred elsewhere.
Yet oral health plays a significant role in maintaining the health of the mother and the unborn baby.
The platform for healthy teeth and gums begins early in life and mothers-to-be should ideally have a regular program of preventive dental care in place before a family is started.
A healthy mouth, free from tooth decay or gum disease ensures the mother and unborn baby have the best chance of a trouble-free pregnancy.
If you’re planning to start a family, it’s important you visit your dentist to check that all is well. You’ll probably have your teeth x-rayed, and teeth and gums cleaned.
And have you ever heard the saying “You lose a tooth for every baby”? It’s actually a complete myth: sensible preventive habits together with guidance from your dentist will ensure dental problems don’t create mouth dramas like tooth loss during the pregnancy.
The Australian Dental Association wants to remind pregnant women that it’s very safe to have routine dental treatment during pregnancy so, even if you find you’re pregnant before you have had a chance to have a check-up, don’t avoid seeing your dentist.
Is dental treatment during pregnancy safe?
It’s natural to be concerned with any treatment which might affect your unborn baby but there’s a greater risk of complications if treatment for tooth decay or infections is delayed or avoided. Untreated tooth decay or gum problems can lead to infections which may be severe and pose a more serious risk to the baby. Local anaesthetics (injections in the mouth before some dental treatments) used in modern dentistry are safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so treatment should not be avoided for this reason.
Another common myth is that x-rays cannot be taken during pregnancy. While it’s better to take routine x-rays before the pregnancy, latest advice from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency1 states that there’s no reason to avoid x-rays during pregnancy, and a lead apron may be used for certain situations. Failure to detect and properly treat a dental problem poses a greater risk than the x-ray itself.
What medications to take during pregnancy is another common concern women understandably raise with their GP or dentist. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration has categorised medications used for dental purposes during pregnancy.2 Common antibiotics like amoxycillin and pain killers such as paracetamol are Category A and safe to take during pregnancy.
Medications in other categories should be used more selectively depending on individual circumstances and perhaps prescribed in consultation with your doctor. As medications taken by the mother may be detected in breast milk in small quantities, prescribing medications for a breastfeeding mother should also be undertaken only when appropriate.
While dental treatment can be performed at any stage during pregnancy, it’s usually most comfortable for the mother during the middle/second trimester (third, fourth and fifth months). Morning sickness, nausea and mouth sensitivity are more common in the first trimester and the increased size of the baby during the third trimester can make reclining in a dental chair uncomfortable. In any event, dental appointments should be kept as short as possible during the whole pregnancy.
There are some dental conditions which occur more often during pregnancy:
- Food Cravings. Eating lots of sugary foods during pregnancy may increase your risk of developing tooth decay. Try to snack on low sugar foods such as fresh fruit, cheese, crackers or plain yoghurt. If you do eat sugary snacks or drinks, rinse with water (preferably tap water as it contains fluoride which protects teeth) and brush your teeth twice a day. But it’s not just eating the sugar that hurts your teeth, it’s also how often you indulge. A lot of snacking can increase your risk of tooth decay if you have a few different sugary foods spread across the day like flavoured yoghurt at breakfast, a slice of cake for morning tea and ice cream for dessert. If you must indulge, for your mouth’s sake it’s far better to limit it to one a day.
- Gum Disease. Gingivitis, or inflammation and redness of the gums, is a common condition. During pregnancy, hormonal changes take place which make the gums more sensitive to irritation from the germs and bacteria in the mouth. This can sometimes make the gums very red and swollen and they may bleed when brushing and flossing. If you experience these problems, make sure you keep your teeth and gums clean by carefully brushing twice a day, using floss once a day and seeing your dentist.
- Morning sickness. If you experience vomiting and reflux, the low pH of the stomach acids can weaken the tooth enamel which over time can lead to tooth erosion or wearing away of the tooth’s surface. This damage can be minimised by not brushing the teeth straight away. Instead rinse with water (preferably tap water) and then wait about an hour before brushing. In the meantime, to make the mouth feel fresher, you can smear a little toothpaste on the teeth or use an alcohol-free mouthwash. It’s safe to leave the toothpaste on the mouth as this will add further protection to your teeth.
- Sometimes the back of the mouth becomes quite sensitive to touch, resulting in a gagging or retching feeling when brushing. If this occurs, try changing the flavour of your fluoridated toothpaste, using a smaller toothbrush, or closing your eyes and using a very gentle, slow tooth brushing technique.
And one final important piece of advice. The recommended age for the first dental visit for your new baby is 12 months. Good dental habits can’t start early enough.
Check out the ADA’s oral health pro tip video on caring for your infant and young children’s teeth on their website here.
Listen to the ADA’s new oral health education podcast, Watch Your Mouth. The first eight-part series is based in oral health care for infants and young children, with episode one focusing on oral health and pregnancy.
Watch Your Mouth is available on both Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
This article was supplied by the Australian Dental Association, a partner of the Advice Hub at the Baby to Toddler Show. For more great dental advice for your pregnancy, baby, toddler and child, visit the Australia Dental Association website
Author: Dr Mikaela Chinotti, the Australian Dental Association’s Oral Health Promoter.
- Radiation protection in dentistry: Radiation protection series No. 10. ARPANSA December 2005.