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Dental professionals: Is it safe to work while pregnant?

It’s very common for women to work during their pregnancy. Depending on their professional role, some women are even happy to work up until their due date. However, some occupations present more challenges than others for pregnant women. For example, dental hygienists are often required to work with radiation and chemicals on a daily basis, two things which can potentially harm an unborn child.   

While it might not be possible to completely avoid taking x-rays or using chemicals while working as a dental hygienist, there are precautions you can take to keep you and your baby safe in the dental practice. If you’re planning on continuing working in dentistry while pregnant, here are some things you should keep in mind:

Tell your employer 

If you’re an employed dental hygienist working for a dentist, it’s important you let your employer know you’re pregnant early on. There’s no definitive rule stating how early you need to inform them of your pregnancy. Some people wait until the first couple of months have passed, after which the risk of miscarriage is lower. However, if you start showing early on, keeping your pregnancy a secret might be a little difficult. 

It’s common to be concerned about being treated differently or losing your position after revealing a pregnancy to your boss. After all, employing a pregnant dental hygienist poses many legal minefields for a dental practice owner. But it’s something you absolutely must do as a dental hygienist. Combat any possible negative feelings by having an open conversation with your boss about your commitment to the job, your maternity leave conditions and your plans to return to work.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act protects pregnant employees from being treated differently to their peers, but only if you follow the regulations. For example, it’s important you provide at least 30 days’ notice of your desired maternity leave and have your employer state in writing when you’re supposed to return to work. As long as you return to work on the date stated, the PDA declares that your previous position must be made available to you. Instead of hiring a full-time worker to replace you when you’re on maternity leave, your employer should consider using a platform like Cloud Dentistry to hire a temporary dental hygienist to take your place. 

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State your condition on your profile

If you’re expecting as an independent contractor dental hygienist, it’s important you let potential employers know you’re pregnant, too. Consider including this information on your Cloud Dentistry profile or informing practice owners when they contact you. While it’s possible you might be passed over for someone who isn’t pregnant, that’s better than receiving a bad review because you failed to inform them of an important fact. 

Change your hours

During your first trimester, it’s likely you’ll be suffering from intense morning sickness. Running to the bathroom while treating patients isn’t ideal, so when possible you should try to change your hours. If you’re an employed dental hygienist, try talking to your boss and see if it’s possible for you to work afternoons or evenings instead of mornings.

If you’re an independent contractor, update your availability on your profile so practice owners won’t contact you about jobs which don’t match up with your schedule. Being able to work just a few hours each day and change your schedule as it suits is just one of the advantages of being a dental hygienist

Take preventative measures with x-rays

The radiation emitted while taking x-rays can potentially harm your unborn baby. But instead of asking the dental assistant or another dental hygienist to take x-rays for you, the American Dental Association recommends you use work practice controls, such as wearing a dosimetry badge so you can monitor your exposure to ionizing radiation. Occupational radiation exposure shouldn’t exceed 0.5 millisieverts (mSv) per month.

Some states make the use of personal dosimetry badges for pregnant employees in dental practices obligatory. The requirements vary by state, so check with your employer and confirm with your local guidelines to find out what you should do. 

Avoid nitrous oxide

Anyone exposed to nitrous oxide could suffer harmful effects. When you’re expecting and working in an environment which frequently uses the chemical compound, you’re right to be even more concerned about the health of you and your baby. While avoiding the treatment room when nitrous oxide is being used goes some way to preventing potential damage, having adequate ventilation and a proper scavenger system is essential for the safety of everyone in the practice. 

Be cautious with chemicals

Other chemicals, such as those used for sterilization and disinfection can also pose risks for pregnant women. According to Victoria Leonard, RN, FNP, PhD, of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, there are periods of vulnerability while the fetus is developing during which miniscule amounts of toxic chemicals can have a profound effect on organ formation. Different brands of sterilizing and disinfecting agents each have distinct active ingredients. To keep you and your baby safe, make sure you always read the labels and follow the recommended protocols thoroughly.

Look after yourself in your third trimester

After enduring the first trimester symptoms and struggling with the safety concerns of being pregnant and being a dental hygienist, the final trimester offers up its own set of unique challenges. Because of pregnancy hormones, many women suffer through intense heartburn and backaches during the third trimester. To ease the symptoms of heartburn, try eating small meals throughout the day and snacking on light, bland foods like saltine crackers. For backache, embrace low impact workouts at home, such as swimming, yoga and walking. 

Wrist pain is also a common complaint during this time. This is often due to increased fluid retention which not only makes the ankles swell up, but can cause carpal tunnel pain, too — especially in dental hygienists who often find themselves in unnatural positions for most of their time at work. Take breaks as regularly as you can and use ice to reduce the pain when it gets too much. Thankfully, these symptoms usually subside quickly after the baby is born.

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Is it safe to practice dentistry when pregnant?

Yes, it’s safe to continue your career as a dental hygienist when you’re pregnant. Even though the stages are the same, each woman experiences pregnancy differently and it’s entirely your decision up to which point you work.

While you’re in the dental practice, take the above precautions to keep you and your baby safe and there will be no negative side effects when the baby is born. Keep your employer up-to-date on your progress, give them as much notice as possible before your maternity leave and your position will be waiting for you when you’re ready to return to work.