Pediatric dental care offers healthy smiles

“I like [bringing my daughter] here,” Loretta Pinel said at the completion of a checkup for 7-year-old Carley at the Bayou Children’s Dental Center. “They explain to the kids what they are going to do and make them comfortable.”

Averting emotional distress among children is part of the plan for Dr. Claudia Cavallino, who said there is more involved with pediatric dental care than just what is going on inside a child’s mouth.

As owner of the Bayou Children’s Dental Center, and one of approximately 6,000 pediatric dentists in the United States, Cavallino, along with her associate, Dr. Paige Gauget and staff, offers the only office of this kind in the Tri-parish region.

After graduating college with a liberal arts degree, that landed her a job at Banana Republic, it did not take Cavallino long to realize she wanted to do more with her life. Her father was a dentist and his work sparked her interest in that field.

Cavallino returned to LSU and earned a D.D.S. She then, through a contact her father had, learned of the need for a dentist specialized in working with children in Houma and made the move from Metairie to Terrebonne Parish, where she opened her practice in 2004.

“I went into dental [training] with an open mind,” Cavallino said. “The more I started treating adults, the more I realized I wanted to specialize in pediatrics.”

Cavallino said that the difference between treating adults and children involves more than just recognizing mature teeth. It requires knowledge about the teeth, jaw structure, and following head and neck structure of a growing person. There is also the training required to properly communicate with children and help them overcome fears commonly held even among the most healthy adult patients.

“As part of our specialty, we also see a lot of special needs kids,” Cavallino said. “We are trained to specifically handle kids with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.”

The Bayou Children’s Dental Center starts seeing children as young as 12 months old. “Pediatric dentists will see special needs patients well into their adult years,” Cavallino said. “I have a couple of 40-year-old patients [with developmental disabilities]. That is not unusual.”

As a pediatric dentist, Cavallino has seen the increase of dental problems in younger children than those noted in past years. She said that cavity rates have increased among 2- to 5-year-old children during the past 10 years, while declining in every other age category.

“I personally think it is diet related,” Cavallino said. “Children are drinking sugary [beverages] all day long. It is the same reason you are seeing childhood obesity increase. There is so much sugar in young kids’ diets.”

Part of the job for pediatric dentists is educating parents on the importance of diet and oral hygiene when it comes to the health of their children.

Bayou Children’s Dental Center is not your parents or grandparents dentist’s office, Cavallino admits. Beyond decorative walls and mind-building games, technological tools, nutritional knowledge and psychological training offered by professionals in this specialty area make going to the dentist less traumatic than many of her patient’s parents remember from their childhoods. It should also make for better grown-up dental patients in years to come.

Cavallino said medical doctors learned years ago that children cannot be treated in the same manner of adults. That understanding carried over to dental care. “The anatomy is different,” she explained. “[A child] can present complications [under sedation] faster than an adult. And their growth and development [is a factor].”

Pediatric dentists undergo two additional years of training than traditional dentists. Those two years of school focus on child psychology, behavior management, pediatric medicine and a host of classes specifically designed for the treatment of children.

“I’ll take a 4-year-old that is apprehensive any day over a 44-year-old,” Cavallino said. “A large part of the population does not know there is such a thing as pediatric dentists.”

Cavallino said one of the biggest challenges in her work is educating the public and parents about dental care for children. “So much of what we do on a daily basis could be prevented with better oral hygiene, better diet nutrition at home and more frequent dental visits,” she said. “Nothing would make me happier every day than checking healthy kids’ mouths as opposed to seeing kids with toothaches and big holes in their teeth.”

As for accomplishments, Cavallino is proud of what her office has been able to offer.

Carley Pinel was too busy playing with mounted games on the waiting area walls to comment about her visit with Dr. Cavallino. She simply offered a smile, a full, healthy grin at that.

At the Bayou Children’s Dental Center, Dr. Claudia Cavallino says educating patients about proper oral health is an important part of being a pediatric dentist. COURTESY PHOTO