Title: When should I take my child to the dentist for the first time?

kid in a dentist chair

There is much confusion about this topic so I have decided to write about it in this blog.

Traditionally, general dentists have…well…not enjoyed treating infants and toddlers so they have said to bring children in once they can be reasoned with at about age 3 to 4.  The problem with this is that children begin to be inoculated with cavity-producing bacterial about the time that they first get their teeth.

Because of this children should come in for  the first time when they get their first teeth or about at 12 months.

Early childhood cavities are the fastest growing cavity rates of all age groups in the United States.  Wealth and prosperity has led families to provide JUICE and processed formula milk for their infants and toddler children around the clock.  Each of these products contain SUGAR.  If the exposures are consistent, especially at night while feeding is passive, bacterial infection can quickly destroy baby teeth, even newly erupted baby teeth.

Prevention is key.  Early childhood cavities are completely preventable with infant oral exam containing tooth brushing instructions with fluoride varnish treatment.

More importantly, children don’t come with instructions.  As a parent I have learned this frequently.  That is why education for parents also happens at the first dental visit.  This is called an “infant oral health” exam.  Dentists go over oral hygiene, diet and nutrition, growth and development, and can answer any questions about what is normal and how best to take care of their child.

I should also say a word about fluoride here.  Fluoride is VERY important to prevent cavities.  However, most children get too much and they swallow toothpaste during brushing.  That is why daily brushing should be done by parents allowing the child to “practice” with direct supervision.  Also, children should only brush with children’s toothpaste.  Adult toothpaste has too much fluoride which if swallowed can cause fluorosis which leaves developing adult teeth with permanent white or brown scars.

BUT WON’T THEY JUST SCREAM?  Let me ask you, do you avoid everything that makes your child scream?  I’m sure you change their diapers, right?  I bet they often scream.  This is a normal response for a child.  It doesn’t bother me and it also doesn’t bother your child to be examined.  And no, they aren’t learning to hate the dentist.  They are just being a kid and when a kid experiences something new, they scream.  ACTUALLY, they open wider when the scream which makes the exam easier and better.

Another key point is that kids don’t distinguish a medical facility from a dental facility.  Usually, every visit at a medical facility involves some sort of a vaccination “shot” or booster injection.  Kids normally learn this quickly and assume the same thing will happen at a dental office.  So if your child fusses when you take them to the dentist, that makes it all the more important that they learn the difference.

What if they have a cavity and need a shot?  If they have a cavity it isn’t going away on its own.  Most baby molars last in the mouth until age 11 or 12!  So they need to be fixed.  Nitrous oxide and sedatives can be used BEFORE the local anesthetic to make it painless.

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT POINT:  DON’T PROJECT YOUR FEARS ON YOUR CHILDREN.  Dentistry has changed a lot over the past 30 years and there is much more attention to discomfort and limiting anxiety using non-threatening approaches, sedatives, and building good relationships with a dentist that has earned your trust.

Talking to your child about an up-coming dental appointment should not include an emphasis on how it will or won’t be.  Saying “We are going to the dentist, but I won’t let them hurt you like they hurt me as a child!” is NOT comforting to a child.  Siblings can also get into the act with talking about inappropriate procedures.  Some older children will tell their little sister or brother how the dentist will be pulling all of their teeth and sticking them with needles all over their mouth.

Instead, the day of the appointment simply say, “We are going to the dentist so that your teeth can be cleaned and examined” is not only appropriate but TRUE.

I NEVER LIE TO MY PATIENTS and this includes toddlers.  In child terms I explain as much as they want to know and do not sneak up on them with anything.  This builds trust and confidence and forges an important relationship.

BOTTOM LINE: Forming early relationships between dentist and patient is critical.  First visits should end up with a good experience leaving your child unafraid of dental treatment for a lifetime leading to higher quality of life.

I hope that you have enjoyed this short discussion on infant oral health and that it helps you in the future.  Please post questions related to this blog and I will answer them each week.

Blessings to you all,

Dr. Philip Estes