As a dentist, I get asked lots of questions about teeth. I can’t go to a cocktail party or wedding without someone asking me to look at a tooth for them. As a pediatric dentist, I get tons of questions about children’s teeth from friends and family, from parents at birthday parties and sporting events, even from my children’s teachers. I’m always happy to help, as educating my fellow parents about their children’s oral health is one of the most fulfilling parts of my career. Children’s oral health is all about prevention, and knowledge is really the key to prevention.
The question I probably get asked the most is, “When should my child start seeing the dentist?” The answer is that ideally, your child should be seen by a dentist by 12 months. In other words, first dental visit by first birthday. Usually, my answer is met with shock and surprise, even sometimes outright disbelief.
Let’s take a step back and unpack where this recommendation comes from.
Did you know that…
• Dental decay is the most common chronic disease in children
• 60% of children experience a cavity in their baby teeth by age 5
• Untreated decay can cause pain and infection that can result in trouble eating, trouble sleeping, trouble focusing in school, and damage a child’s self-esteem
• A simple conversation with a pediatric dentist early in a child life can help foster a lifetime of good oral health
Once parents understand the importance of their baby seeing the dentist, the next question I get is, “How does it work, don’t they just cry?” While it’s true that the first dental visit can be a noisy one, the appointment is generally quick, fun, and informative. Typically, the child will have their teeth cleaned followed by a clinical exam by the dentist and application of fluoride varnish. Some brave little ones will climb into the dental chair but generally parents will hold the child in a lap-to-lap position with the dentist.
Following the exam, your dentist will provide age-relevant information and recommendations for your individual child. Topics we may discuss include prevention of cavities, brushing and flossing techniques (especially for pre-cooperative children), what toothpaste and toothbrush to use, how snacking and dietary habits impact dental health, pacifier or thumb sucking habits, nursing and/or bottle use, injury prevention, and guidance of your child’s growth and development. Your dentist will create a personalized prevention plan based on your child’s individual risk factors. Establishing a “dental home” by their first birthday is an important first step for creating a lifetime of good oral health for your tot.
The last thing parents usually tell me is the hardest. They say, “I was told my child does not need to be seen until age 3.” The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) established the concept of the dental home and age one visit in 2003, and it was quickly adopted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Dental Association (ADA), and Academy of General Dentistry (AGD). Many general practitioners and family dentists will welcome babies for their first dental visit. However, if your dentist does not provide these services, ask for a referral to a pediatric dentist.
So, while you’re preparing to celebrate your baby’s first birthday—ordering a cake, scheduling photos, planning a party—don’t forget to schedule their first dental appointment! And if you’ve already missed that milestone for your own little one, don’t worry; just remember it’s better late than never. We are happy to welcome your child, at any age, for their first dental visit. We’ll do our part to create a positive experience for your child and give you the knowledge and tools to foster a lifetime of happy smiles for your family.