There is no perfect parenting formula when it comes to keeping our kids strong and healthy. But we do know that oral health and overall health are closely tied to one another. Dr. Laila Hishaw, commonly referred to as “The Mommy Dentist,” is a board-certified Delta Dental pediatric dentist and a mother of three. She combines scientific research and practical tips to help parents keep kids cavity-free and healthy through all stages of development.
Dr. Hishaw sat down with us to chat about her three Tucson Smiles Pediatric Dentistry dental practices, her new book “Cavity Free Kids” and how she balances being a mom, author and business owner. We were inspired by her enthusiasm and advice for helping kids develop healthy smiles that will last a lifetime!
CC: What brings you the most joy at work?
LH: Hands down, the kids! As a pediatric dentist, they are where I get life. When I was in dental school, I didn’t know where I was going to specialize or even if I was going to. But I have always loved kids and had experience working with them in different capacities, including as a camp counselor.
When I did my rotations in pediatric dentistry during dental school, I realized it was different! I enjoyed the spontaneity of pediatric dentistry and the hospital aspect of it, including sedation and anesthesia.
In pediatric dentistry, we see the kids early on in life before they develop any poor oral health habits. We help them establish their daily routines and oral hygiene regimens that will hopefully carry on throughout the rest of their lives.
CC: What’s the best thing parents can do for their child’s oral health?
LH: Most importantly, make sure your kids see a dentist by their first birthday. At home, assist your kids with brushing until they are 5 or 6 years old. I have seen many kids that have a cavity at 3 years old and the parents will tell me their toddler brushes their teeth. But if a parent isn’t helping them brush, they likely aren’t brushing effectively.
It’s also important to start flossing as soon as your baby has two teeth touching. Flossing can help prevent cavities in between the teeth. The worst is when we find “surprise cavities.” Sometimes parents won’t want their children to have mouth X-rays at a young age. However, it’s very hard to detect a cavity between the teeth without an X-ray.
Another thing parents can monitor is dieting and snacking. When kids are home, it’s easy for them to be in and out of the pantry all day long. They’ll snack standing up, while scrolling on their device or watching TV. Refined carbs, like chips, dry cereal and goldfish crackers can cause cavities. So, try to limit starchy snacks and encourage water intake throughout the day.
CC: What are some tips to help older kids maintain their oral health care routines?
LH: You may find it helpful to introduce your older kids to an electric toothbrush. You can try an over-the-counter spin brush before picking up a more expensive electric toothbrush. The electric toothbrushes often have a timer, so it will help kids brush for the entire 2 minutes. If your kids don’t have an electric toothbrush, put a timer in their bathroom so they can time themselves brushing. Teens often brush for less than 30 seconds.
Try to enforce no multitasking while brushing. Some kids brush while they dance, answer a text or walk around. For 2 minutes, twice a day ask your kids to look at themselves in the mirror and focus on brushing their teeth.
And don’t forget to floss, floss, floss. Always floss before bed. If floss sticks are easier, those are fine to use too! Leave the floss sticks out on the bathroom counter as a reminder. Just like a delicious looking bowl of fruit, you’re more likely to grab one when it’s easily available.
CC: What’s the best way to prepare kids for a visit to the dentist?
LH: This is a main message I write about in my book. It’s important to get your kids to the dentist by age one.
Before you visit the dentist, fill out all the paperwork you can at home. Download your child’s health history and have your insurance information ready. Know what your plan covers. Some plans, like Delta Dental, offer great coverage for their members.
By having most of your paperwork completed before you arrive, the check-in will be quick and easy with less waiting time. This will also help if you have multiple kids with you. Plus, toddlers have a shorter attention span, so the longer they wait around the less cooperative they’ll be in the dentist chair.
Also, try to schedule an appointment that isn’t close to your child’s normal naptime. Morning appointments are better for preschool age kids and under. They’re more awake, alert and tend to cooperate better.
Pick up some fun dentist books to read to your kids. When I first meet a young patient, I often tell them, “I’m Dr. Hishaw and I love counting teeth! I’m a mom too so I’m just going to help you keep your teeth healthy.”
When parents are trying to ease their kids’ dental fears, they sometimes give too much information. You don’t have to tell your kids that there will be sharp tools, but they aren’t going to hurt them. If you’re nervous as a parent, you might pass that down to your kids and they’ll wonder if they should be nervous too.
Make sure you bring your list of questions you’d like to ask the dentist. You can find a “Dental Visit Checklist” on my website that will help make for a successful first visit to the dentist!
CC: What attributes should parents look for in a pediatric dentist/dental office?
LH: When you’re calling around to schedule an appointment, ask questions like, “will you see my child at age one?” or “do you handle your own dental emergencies?” Mouth injuries can occur from falling, sports or other activities. And when an adult tooth falls out, time is of the essence! While you are calling around trying to find a place to go, your child may have lost their tooth.
Also, if it’s important to you to be in the room while your child is getting their exam, ask the dental office if they allow parents back with their kids.
CC: What other types of diseases and ailments can a dentist identify during an exam?
LH: The mouth is the gateway to our overall health. We can see if there are any abnormalities in tissue (gums, tongue and cheeks). Sometimes parents will call out a sore in the mouth that’s been there for a month or longer. Any mouth sores that are over 2 weeks old can be a concern. We can also check lymph nodes, airways, and for sleep apnea.
CC: Let’s talk about your book! What motivated you to write “Cavity Free Kids”?
LH: That’s a great question. The hardest part about being a pediatric dentist is when I have to tell a mom that their child has a cavity. And then it’s even more difficult to tell them that it could’ve been prevented. If I could help prevent cavities inside and outside of my practice, I wanted to pursue that.
A visit to the dentist by age one is the best thing we can do to help our kids avoid tooth decay. Tooth decay is the #1 most chronic infectious disease affecting children in the U.S.* Prevention starts when the mom is pregnant. I included information about keeping your mouth healthy while pregnant in my book. It helps develop a healthy baby and promotes tooth development. Reducing bacteria in the mother’s mouth can do worlds to help keep a baby’s teeth and gums healthy!
CC: What do you hope parents (or future parents) take away from reading “Cavity Free Kids”?
LH: I want parents to feel equipped with the right information. So many of us go straight to Google as our resource, but there is some false information out there. I have a ton of research, articles and references to help give parents the correct information when it comes to diet and oral hygiene.
I wanted to give parents practical tips that are backed by science. As a mom, I’m fighting the same fight as most parents. Sometimes you may let your kids have a Gatorade or let them skip brushing their teeth one night. Don’t give up. You may fall off the wagon, but we have to get back on for the health of our children.
There is no manual that comes with our kids. When I was pregnant, I had a big stack of pregnancy books and there was only one little section on dental health. I was hoping “Cavity Free Kids” could be like the “What to Expect When Expecting” for oral health care.
The book is split up in stages from pregnancy and birth to first birthday and beyond. I also included a section on special needs because those children should still receive proper oral health care.
CC: It seems like you’ve found a healthy balance between work, family and serving your community. What’s your secret?
LH: This is probably one I’m still working on! In general, as dentists, we go into the field because we want to serve others. It’s in my soul, so I stay involved in the community and programs that are important to me. I hope this shows my family that we are all one community. We rise up as a whole when we help others. My family comes with me and we serve together at community service events.
I also try to be at home and present. It was hard having the practice closed during COVID-19, but I really enjoyed making the kids a lunch every day. We all sat and ate together. Even though we didn’t get to go away to Disneyland or somewhere special during the time off, we used it as a time to connect.
CC: I noticed you often talk about having “the support of a village.” Can you tell us a little more about that?
LH: We can’t do it alone. A lot of women put pressure on themselves to handle everything. I have three dental practices and three busy kids, so we’re always running around everywhere. Sometimes women feel like they’ve failed when they can’t be everywhere every time. I believe we shouldn’t be afraid to rely on others to help us, whether that’s a babysitter, family member or friend. We just have to realize that when you need the help, it’s okay to ask for the help. My husband and I divide and conquer!
Also, we aren’t our children’s only role models. It’s good for them to have other people to look up to! My godmother was a role model to me. We bring other people in to help us, feed into our children and help them grow in their confidence and experiences to accomplish their goals.
For me, as a black female dentist, I embrace the fact that I’m a role model to them. It gives them hope that they could be a dentist or do something to help others. Since we have such a disparity in black dentists, it struck a cord in me that we need to make a change. I want to try to reach the community of underrepresented minorities to help them learn about dentistry, the benefits it offers and how you can help others. We can tell them how important it is to do well in their science and math classes because that will help them become a strong dental school candidate. This way, when it comes time to apply to dental school, they have the grades and the stamina to be a successful graduate.
CC: You have been recognized as one of Tucson’s Top Dentists! What do you love about Tucson and your community?
LH: I do love Tucson. It is a true community, not only in its size, but in coming together when we need to. We’ve seen it with some of the shootings and even now with COVID-19. There is a sense that we’re in this together. I enjoy being in a college town with so much research and information coming out of University Hospitals and the University of Arizona. We’re right on the pulse of the latest news and findings that can assist globally.