by Suzanne Dixon, M.D., M.P.H.
Dental health is vital for your child's overall health and appearance, and early, regular checkups are a keystone of good oral care. Here’s everything you need to know about those first few visits to the dentist, and how to make each dental checkup as worry-free as possible for both you and your child.
When Should a Child First Visit the Dentist?
Schedule the first dental appointment within a few months of those first baby teeth coming through, or around your child’s first birthday, whichever comes first. Typically, a baby’s first teeth start to appear at around 4 to 7 months, however, don’t be alarmed if they appear after your baby turns 1.
How Often Should a Child Go to the Dentist?
Take your child to the dentist for a general checkup twice a year. The dentist will check the health of the teeth and gums, clean the teeth, and make sure everything is developing well. Luckily, dentists now know so much about keeping fear and pain out of dental care that children should really have no reason to worry when it’s time for one of these visits.
Of course, sometimes a visit to the dentist may not be quite as simple as a cleaning if a tooth is knocked out, chipped, or cracked, for example. If a permanent tooth is knocked out, then getting to the dentist right away could save it. Other times, like in the case of a chipped tooth, the dentist visit can wait until the next day.If you notice that one of your child’s teeth is decayed or if your child has a toothache (possibly due to a cavity), make a dental appointment soon instead of waiting for the next bi-annual checkup.
Read more about tooth injuries for information on what to do if your child’s tooth is knocked out or if you think a tooth might be decaying.
Tips to Make the Dentist Visit a Little Easier
There are a few things you can do to be sure your child gets the right care and develops an attitude that will ensure his smile stays bright for a lifetime:
- Pick a child-friendly dentist. Pediatric dentists have specialized training and interest in kids’ dental issues. Dental offices often have décor that will appeal to children, and staff who are trained in dealing with kids. If you don’t have a pediatric dentist in your community, look for a dentist whose waiting room, staff attitude, and comfort with children tell you this will be a good experience. Your pediatrician will have suggestions.
- Visit ahead of time. Bring a child in before the time of the appointment to get acquainted with the place.
- Don’t introduce worry. Make going to the dentist seem like a natural part of growing up. Explain that the dentist will take a look inside your child’s mouth, and that the dentists and nurses will be friendly and gentle.
- Examine your own attitude about the dentist. Many parents have some memories of bad dental experiences, and they can give unspoken negative messages about the dental chair. The parent who can be the most positive about the visit should be the one to go with the child.
What Does the Dentist Do?
Although each dentist will do things a little differently, here’s a quick rundown on what to expect:
- First appointment. Not much may happen, aside from the dentist having a chance to meet your child in a friendly setting. Some dentists may ask the parent to hold their child during the visit, while other dentists prefer that the parent wait at the reception so that a one-on-one relationship can be formed. The dentist will check on the health of your baby’s gums, mouth, and new baby teeth.
- Regular checkups. During those twice-yearly dental exams, the dentist will check for any signs of decay, assess the child’s bite, and check there are no problems with the gums, jaw, and other oral tissues. She will also count the child’s teeth and make sure they are growing well. If needed, the dentist may clean the child’s teeth.
- What mom and dad can expect. The dentist will ask you about your child’s oral habits, such as thumb sucking, tongue thrusting, teeth grinding, and lip sucking. The dentist can also give you advice about teething, tips on how to soothe a teething child, and information about the correct brushing technique for your child. The dentist may offer advice on other healthy habits (such as avoiding sugar) that will help protect those baby teeth.
- What mom and dad can consider. Take this chance to ask questions about what to expect in terms of the child’s dental development, and what to look out for. Before leaving, remember to schedule the next appointment for six months later.
Why Regular Dental Checkups Are Important
Even though baby teeth eventually fall out, their health is crucial to your child’s oral health and overall well-being. Taking care of those baby teeth helps to ensure healthy gums and proper development of the adult (permanent) teeth. Your pediatric dentist can check the health of your baby’s gums and teeth and make recommendations, if necessary. The dentist will also know about local fluoride levels in the water, and will be able to advise about fluoride varnishes or supplements, if they’re required.
Visiting the dentist early and often also means your child can feel more comfortable about these checkups, setting up a good routine of regular dental care that will continue into adulthood.
How to Take Care of Your Baby’s Teeth at Home
There’s a lot you can do to care for your baby’s teeth and gums at home. For starters, you'll want to brush your baby’s teeth and gums twice a day, avoid giving your child sugary drinks and sweets, and eventually teach him how to brush his own teeth. For more information about these steps and more, read these FAQs about home dental care for children.