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Smiling with the children: February is National Children’s Dental Health Month

Feb. 1, 2022
In honor of National Children’s Dental Health Month, Kirsten Brancheau, BA, RDH, shares how treating low-income and underprivileged kids was one of the "most emotional and rewarding years" of her career.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2021.

I have spent almost all of my 44 years in dental hygiene in various general dentistry practices. I mostly see adult patients, but I enjoy seeing the occasional child as well. I love kids, and a little variety keeps things interesting. Several years ago, I agreed to temp in a pediatric dental office for a week while my regular employer was on vacation. It sounded like a fun change. I learned two lessons from that week in pedo: 1. I am not cut out for pediatric dentistry. 2. Pediatric dental hygienists are superhuman.

I was not ready for a patient every 30 minutes and the constant noise and activity and trying to get accurate x-rays in tiny mouths and squirmy kids who think the chair is a sliding board and chatty parents who try to do my job for me by giving their child the wrong instructions and … well, I survived—barely—but I resolved never to work in a pediatric office again. It was an eye-opening experience.

Whenever I hear a hygienist say she/he loves pedo, I am awestruck because that’s when I know I am in the presence of a superior being. I have immense respect for anyone who can work exclusively with kids day in and day out and still retain their sanity.

After that traumatic experience, my boss returned and I happily settled back into my mostly adult practice. It was smooth sailing again, until my boss announced that he would be closing his private practice and taking the year before retirement to collaborate with our local hospital in treating only low-income and underprivileged kids in his office. And he wanted me to continue to work with him.

With great trepidation, I agreed, because I needed the job. And thus began one of the most emotional and rewarding years of my career.

An emotional roller coaster

To my enormous relief, I was to be given a whole hour per patient! As it turned out, I generally needed the hour. Patients frequently arrived late, cutting into the appointment time. Some kids had never seen a dentist before and needed a lot of work. I had time to connect with each child and explain what we would be doing. Many of these children seemed emotionally hungry and soaked up the attention that I gave them. I had time to listen to them, even when they weren’t talking about their oral health. Never before had I received so many hugs and “I love yous” from patients as I did in this year spent with kids.

Also by Kirsten Brancheau:
These old hands

Musings of an older hygienist

But there were emotional downs as well. The parents loved their children, but many were lacking basic parenting skills, and the kids suffered because of it, not just dentally. I spent a lot of time educating parents, and many were extremely grateful.

But others dismissed my advice, and my heart ached for their children. One sweet little 3-year-old had a mouthful of caries. Upon questioning her mom, I learned she put her daughter to bed with a baby bottle full of soda. I began to tell her that her child’s dental problems were due to the soda, but the mother cut me off. “I know all that. But she won’t go to sleep unless she has her soda.” I tried in vain to get her to understand that she was the adult and needed to take control for the good of her child’s health and well-being. Nothing I said seemed to make any difference. I looked at that innocent little smiling child in my chair and felt despair for her future.

Although the hospital-sponsored program closed after a year, many of these children went to school with my own children and I watched them as they grew up. After graduation, I lost track of most of them, but recently I’ve seen some of these kids, now in their 20s and early 30s, involved in social justice programs and running for public office in town. And when I watch them speak so eloquently and see their beautiful smiles, I feel honored to have been a tiny part of their journey as they matured into such amazing adults.

Give Kids a Smile

The hospital-sponsored program closed at the end of 2002, and another organization took over and eliminated the position of dental hygienist. I moved on to a general practice … back in my comfort zone. But shortly after I left the children’s clinic, I was asked to come back as a volunteer for a day. The clinic was participating in a brand-new program called Give Kids A Smile (GKAS).

The event was chaotic. Nobody seemed to be in charge and nobody knew what to do. We saw some children but they were rushed through, and the gentle, nurturing approach that I had experienced the previous year was missing. I left the clinic at the end of the day feeling discouraged.

Several years later, I participated once again in a GKAS event. This time, though, it was beautifully organized. We decorated the office in a Hollywood theme and everyone had fun. We saw many kids, and everyone—patients, parents, and staff—left at the end of the day with happy memories and smiles.

The Give Kids A Smile program was nationally launched in 2003 by the American Dental Association (ADA). It provides underserved children with free dental care. Each year, approximately 6,500 dentists and 30,000 dental team members volunteer to provide free oral health education, screenings, and preventive and restorative treatment to more than 300,000 children. According to the ADA, to date, more than six million underserved children have received free oral health services.1 Resources for planning a GKAS event can be found at ada.org/en/public-programs/give-kids-a-smile/give-kids-a-smile-toolkit.2

National Children’s Dental Health Month

National Children’s Dental Health Month (NCDHM) had its beginnings as a one-day event in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 3, 1941. Eight years later, on February 8, 1949, the ADA held the first national observance of National Children’s Dental Health Day. In 1955, the single-day event became a weeklong event, and in 1981 the event became a monthlong observance known as National Children’s Dental Health Month.3

NCDHM 2021 is sponsored by the ADA in partnership with Crest + Oral-B. The monthlong awareness campaign “aims to work with children, caregivers, teachers, and other professionals to raise awareness of the benefits of good oral health care.”4 The ADA website and the Crest + Oral-B website provide planning guides, posters, publicity resources, and fun activity sheets for kids, in both English and Spanish.5,6 

Celebrate the children!

It has been many years since my brief foray into pediatric dentistry. My current practice has mostly older patients, but I’m always happy when I see a child on my schedule. Although I’m not cut out for full-time pedo, I like seeing children in small doses. What is cuter than a shy 4-year-old carefully finding four fingers to show you how old he is? What is more heartwarming than a little girl staring entranced at her brand-new Disney princess toothbrush? And what is funnier than watching a parent haplessly suggest her son choose a sticker, or perhaps a pencil, from the treasure box at the end of the appointment, both of us knowing full well that he will choose the sticky hand that will end up either in the dog’s fur or on the ceiling? But most of all, what is more rewarding than watching your little patient hop down from the oversized dental chair with a big fluoride- varnished smile on her tiny little teeth, telling Mom she loves to go to the dentist?

February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. Kudos to those special pediatric dental hygienists out there, and let’s all celebrate the children!


  1. About Give Kids A Smile. American Dental Association. https://www.ada.org/en/public-programs/give-kids-a-smile/about-give-kids-a-smile
  2. Give Kids A Smile toolkit. American Dental Association. https://www.ada.org/en/public-programs/give-kids-a-smile/give-kids-a-smile-toolkit
  3. National Children’s Dental Health Month. Northeastern Society of Orthodontists. February 11, 2015. https://neso.org/national-childrens-dental-health-month/
  4. National Children’s Dental Health Month 2021. Awareness Days. https://www.awarenessdays.com/awareness-days-calendar/national-childrens-dental-health-month-2021/
  5. February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. American Dental Association. https://www.ada.org/en/public-programs/national-childrens-dental-health-month
  6. February is National Children’s Dental Health Month. dentalcare.com. https://www.dentalcare.com/en-us/patient-education/childrens-dental-health