Being pregnant can be one of the most magical times for a family. I remember when my wife was pregnant and we anxiously awaited for our son to arrive. We had so much fun choosing his name, daydreaming about what he’d look like and thinking about what kind of parents we’d become. While these are the same things many expecting mothers are still doing today, they are dealing with the added burden of being pregnant in the middle of a pandemic. As if they didn’t have so many other worries to deal with, COVID-19 certainly adds stress and uncertainty at an already uncertain stage of life.
People fear going to the dentist even during normal times, so it’s easy to rationalize skipping the dentist during a global health crisis. But I’d like to stress that not only are dental offices remarkably safe, but that oral health is particularly important for expecting mothers, and could have a direct effect on the health of the baby and the mother herself. While this isn’t typically discussed during the many OB-GYN visits during pregnancy, it is something I see firsthand at my six pediatric dental offices. Let me explain why.
When a woman is pregnant, immune and hormonal changes make her more susceptible to a form of gum inflammation referred to as pregnancy gingivitis. This is actually more common than you’d expect, impacting roughly 60-75 percent of pregnant women. Gum disease during pregnancy can have a variety of adverse effects ranging from premature births to low birth weights. Annually, about 10 percent of babies are born early in the U.S., and preterm babies can experience both short- and long-term health problems. Poor oral health can also increase the mother’s risk of gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, a potentially fatal pregnancy complication.
Maintaining good oral health can become increasingly challenging during pregnancy. Food cravings alone can lead to dietary choices that aren’t the healthiest, and that extra sugar provides fuel to harmful oral bacteria which could result in cavities, gum disease and overall health consequences. Morning sickness can also pose a problem; prompting pregnant women to avoid brushing their teeth altogether due to nausea, or actual vomiting which releases eroding gastric acids. The acid from vomit can damage the teeth, especially in the upper front areas. Brushing immediately after vomiting could cause even more erosion or damage, because that is when teeth are most vulnerable. Without proper maintenance and guidance from a dentist, these issues could do irreversible damage on your oral and overall health.
Oral health also extends to airway health and breathing. Snoring is a common side effect that impacts 30 percent of expecting mothers, and women who snore habitually during pregnancy are three times more likely to deliver developmentally delayed babies. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder that involves the stopping and starting of breathing, tends to get worse during pregnancy due to weight gain and the baby pushing against the diaphragm. OSA limits the amount of oxygen in the body, which can have detrimental effects on a mom and her developing fetus and is another problem an airway-focused dentist can help address.
I understand that we’re living in scary times right now, but going to the dentist will only help—not hurt—a mother’s chances of a healthy pregnancy. As a member of the dental and medical profession for over 20 years, I’m a strong advocate that taking care of your oral health is integral in your overall health. It may play an underpublicized role, but good health starts in the mouth. If I can impart anything on expecting mothers today, it is to not ignore oral health–your baby will thank you later.
Dr. Kami Hoss is a San Diego-based orthodontist and dentofacial orthopedist, author, and founder of The Super Dentists and Howard Healthcare Academy. He is on the Board of Counselors at UCLA School of Dentistry where he previously received his doctorate in dental surgery.