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A day in the life of a school-based dentist

A photo of Dr Singh
Dr Singh is passionate about caring for children's teeth.

Dentists know that in the long lists of things parents do each day (we know there’s a lot), the dentist can often be at the bottom. What’s important to know, is that dentists don’t want to make your lists bigger, they want your child’s teeth to get off to the best start possible, which will hopefully make your life easier in years to come.

Around Queensland, oral health care is provided to children and teenagers through the Children and Adolescent Oral Health Services, which are known in some areas as the School Dental Service.

We visited principal dentist from Metro North Oral Health Services, Dr Tarini Singh at Bracken Ridge School Dental Clinic. We followed her and her team to learn about what the day in the life of a school dentist looks like and what they want you to know. From general tooth care and healthy diets, to talking you through your child’s treatment options, a dentist’s day is never the same.

The dental team arrive bright and early, usually 30 minutes before their first appointment. This gives them time to do a thorough clean of chairs and equipment, review patients’ run sheets, ready patient documents and ensure the dental team is ready for the day. The team is made up of a principal dentist, Dr Tarini and her dental assistant Shandel, dental therapist Ms Sue Batterham and her dental assistant Tamara.

Kids come to the dentist for all sorts of reasons

We can assure you the dentist has seen it all, which is why you shouldn’t feel worried about your trips to the dentist. One of the most common issues that Dr Tarini sees each day is cavities and tooth decay.

Dr Tarini is great with kids, it’s a part of her job, and wants adults and children to know that,“Going to the dentist is not that scary”. Her first patient has come in with a chipped tooth from accidently falling over on the way to get ice cream. “My goodness, I’ve never heard that one before!” Dr Tarini says, making the little girl giggle and relax in the chair. The job is over quickly and smoothly which can be quite rare when you are working with children and their teeth. However, there’s ways that both dentists and parents can help.

Dr Singh lets a little boy use dental tools on his toy lion

Get your children used to their mouth, gums, teeth and the dentist early

If Dr Tarini could tell parents one habit to teach your child, it’s getting them used to brushing their teeth young. It’s important to start brushing children’s teeth as soon as they appear. Once brushing becomes a good habit with your child, this sets a good foundation for other dental care. If you find it hard to brush your child’s teeth, ask the dentist for tips. They clean teeth all the time so they’ll always be able to help you.

As adults, we know to sit down and let the dentist do their work. For a child that may be at the dentist for the first time, the dentist can be a scary place. This is why it’s important to get your child used to the dentist from an early age, usually after their first birthday.

Visiting the dentist for the first time

As a parent, you may be worried about how your child will behave when they first go to the dentist. It’s normal for your child to be anxious, cover their mouth or not want to sit in the chair. What’s important to remember is that school based dentists work with kids, they’ve seen it all before. They know how to explain things in a way that isn’t as scary and are always seeking ways to make sure your child is comfortable. This means making jokes, bringing in kid’s books, letting them touch and see tools (that aren’t sharp) and always asking for the child’s permission before they perform any dental work.  A dentist will always watch and listen to you and your child.

Dr Tarini’s next patient is a 4-year-old boy who has been to the dentist before and knows all about his teeth and gums. He is here for a cavity check-up, which will mean coating his teeth with fluoride for extra protection. Fluoride is something that is used to strengthen the coating, otherwise known as enamel, on your teeth. Most children don’t like fluoride, it doesn’t taste very nice, but it’s a very important part of dental health, so getting it on successfully is one reason why it’s useful to have your little one used to things touching their teeth and gums.

The little boy walks into the room with his toy lion ‘Leo’ by his side, a big grin and jumps right into the chair. Dr Tarini talks to mum while her assistant Shandel pulls out the vacuum sucker to get the little boy used to it. Straight away, there’s laughter and a smile as the little boy plays with the tool. He knows exactly where he is and what the dentist does, which means when it’s time for the treatment to begin, he’s more comfortable.

Dr Tarini encourages parents to bring their children in to the dentist from an early age, even if it is only to get used to sounds, smells and noises. This means that the next time they come to the dentist, your child has more of an understanding of where they are and what a dentist does. Some parents may not want to take their child to the dentist just to get them comfortable and money can sometimes become a big factor. But there is one important piece of information that Dr Tarini wants people to know when it comes to budgeting for dentist trips.

Parents don't need to avoid the dentist – especially when it can be free

One reason why some people may avoid the dentist can be because of cost, but it’s important to know what dental services can be available. Children aged from four years and school children up to the completion of year 10 are eligible for free dental care from the Queensland School Dental Service. This can sometimes be a surprise for many parents.

The next patient that comes in is a little 4-year-old girl with tooth decay. She may need to visit for more appointments in future, but Dr Tarini is great at explaining what services are available to her mum. She encourages all parents to ask dentists about what options are available. This means you can get an understanding of what’s needed and why, potential wait times and your options if you do want to go through a private dentist.

The little girl is a little bit more nervous than the little boy that came before her. With a friendly, gentle voice, Dr Tarini asks, “What’s your favourite colour?”

The little girl whispers “Yellow.” In a short second Dr Tarini passes her a yellow toothbrush. The little girl lights up for a short moment but becomes nervous again.

Dr Tarini says that every child is different, and if they come in feeling nervous and the focus of appointment becomes about making them comfortable, then that’s a very positive step forward. After taking baby steps throughout the appointment, Dr Tarini can put some fluoride on the little girl’s teeth and send her on her way.

Diet matters more than parents realise

Good brushing behaviour isn’t the only habit that prevents tooth decay and cavities. It’s important to remember that baby teeth are just as important as adult teeth, because strong teeth in childhood set children up for good oral health later in life.

Decay can start in baby teeth soon after they appear and lead to baby teeth falling out earlier than they should. The early loss of baby teeth can cause crowding of the adult teeth.  Around 55 per cent of children aged five to 14 attending Queensland Health oral health services have a history of tooth decay.

In almost every appointment, Dr Tarini asks about her patients’ diet. It’s important to avoid sugary food and drinks like juice, soft drink and cordial. Healthy fruits may not always come to mind as foods to be aware of for dental health. Dentist don’t want you to cut out good foods like fruit, but they do want to make sure parents know what to do when their child is eating them.

Dr Tarini says it’s important that children break up their sweet treats closer to a main meal and avoid snacking on them. When talking to a parent about her child’s diet, the mum mentions that her daughter is eating some grapes and bananas in the morning. Dr Tarini is quick to tell the mum how great it is that her child is eating healthy food so well. Then she suggests pairing fruit with plain yoghurt or cheese. This means all the good bacteria and calcium from diary can soften how strong the sugary food is on teeth is and add extra protection to the teeth themselves. It’s a very small change, but it’s small habits that help teeth and gums stay healthy.

Dr Singh works on a patient

The dentist knows more than just teeth

After her last appointment for the morning, Dr Tarini has a moment to do admin like filing patient folders, calling other clinics and booking future appointments. It’s clear that dentists do much more than just look at teeth all day.

From the moment you open your mouth, your dentist can tell how well you’re taking care of those pearly whites. The same can be said for your child’s mouth as well and this is a good thing.

Your mouth can show signs of type 2 diabetes, if your low on certain vitamins or if you have weak or fragile bones (called osteoporosis), while bad gums have even been linked to heart disease. This means that dentists work with all types of other health professionals to take care of their patients. Dr Tarini has worked with speech pathologists, occupational therapists, case workers for special needs children, orthodontists and doctors. This is the case for most dentists.

What’s great about this is if you do have questions for your dentist about the other health professionals they refer you to, they’ll have a clear answer. If your child needs a certain type of treatment that doesn’t always involve the dentist, like going to the orthodontist, they will be able to help you understand everything that is involved.

Dentists are great teachers and after spending the day in the School Dental Clinic, it’s clear that a lot happens behind the scenes to ensure kids are getting the best care when it’s time to sit in the chair.

Learn more here

Taking care of your child’s teeth

Dental services for children and teenagers

Teething 101: Is my baby teething?

Last updated: 16 July 2020