Northern Ireland

Major £2.6m trial to tackle children's tooth decay in a new way

The new study will target more than 200 parents and their children in Northern Ireland
The new study will target more than 200 parents and their children in Northern Ireland

PSYCHOLOGISTS at Queen's University Belfast are embarking on major £2.6 million study investigating the impact of new "interventions" for young children affected by tooth decay.

The landmark trial will run in tandem with a team from the University of Liverpool and involve more than 900 families over the next four years.

Parents with children between the ages of three and seven will be recruited from across Northern Ireland and England, particularly in more deprived areas where a child has had at least one tooth extracted due to decay.

With around 5,000 children admitted to hospital each year in the north to have their baby teeth removed under general anaesthetic, academics from the School of Psychology at Queen's are examining if a 30 minute session with a trained dental nurse will make a difference.

For Dr Pauline Adair, a clinical and health psychologist who has worked in dentistry trials for 20 years, the approach will be a "respectful and non-judgmental" one.

"One of the challenges for a family is that when they bring their child to a dentist they are worried about their child being seen, particularly if the child has tooth decay, and what that reflects on them as a parent," she told The Irish News.

"We are basically trying to understand the difficulties that parents experience - as we know that most of the tooth decay is among more deprived families.

"The routines within the family and lifestyles may be difficult to change. It’s challenging for parents, especially if there is easy access to sugary drinks and food.

"The fizzy drink in the baby's bottle is one example, as many children often refuse milk and water when they’re young and instead want sugar in it."

Around 40 dental practices will be involved, with training of dental nurses and preparatory work beginning in December.

Recruitment of children and their parents - more than 200 are to selected in the north - will start next June through schools and surgeries.

With the majority of dentists only seeing children for emergency appointments over the past 14 months due to Covid-19 restrictions, Dr Adair said their trial will be 'Covid proof' while ensuring the young recruits are seen in a dental practice.

However, the focus will be on the parent.

"We call the parents the 'agents of behaviour change' for children age three to seven, as it parents who control the shopping, supervise what comes into house and assist with tooth brushing," Dr Adair added.

"The dental nurse will target the parents as they are responsible and in control. If they can make the change in relation to diet and tooth brushing, then it benefits the child.

"There will be a 30 minute conversation with a trained dental nurse while the child will also be seen by a dentist.

We will provide support and advice and set one or two goals around sugar and tooth brushing, We want to get children earlier when we have a first episode of tooth decay rather than at point where they're nine years-old."