Ask the Expert: Dental Tips for Kids

Ask the Expert: Dental Tips for Kids

Get answers to 6 common questions about pediatric dentistry.

The first smile ... the first tooth ... the first time the baby happily noshes away on his morning oatmeal. All of these are lovely milestones that parents pretty much know when to expect.

But what about that first visit to the dentist? How old should a child be before he or she hits that milestone? For the answer to this and other common questions about children's oral health, we consulted Deborah Studen-Pavlovich, DMD, chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine.

At what age should a child have his or her first dental visit?
"We recommend that children have their first exam by their first birthday," says Dr. Studen-Pavlovich. That may seem premature, given that most kids that age have just three or four teeth, but there are a couple of good reasons to start early. For one thing, that early visit makes it easier for the dentist to be focus on cavity prevention. "If we see a child at nine months who's already drinking tons of juice, we can stress to parents the importance of nipping that habit in the bud before the child develops cavities from the juice," she says. "Also, most accidents that children have occur between the ages of two and three-and-a-half years old, and often times they fall and traumatize a tooth. So you want to have already established a dental home by this point, so you're not calling around trying to get a dentist you've never met to see you at the spur of moment."

After that initial visit how often should children visit the dentist?
"We recommend that children see their dentist every six months, just like mom and dad do," says Studen-Pavlovich.

Do I need to find a pediatric dentist?
Not necessarily. Depending on where you live, you might not have a pediatric dentist nearby. Instead, look for a general dentist who is comfortable treating very young children. "When you call to make that first appointment, you can ask if the office is child-friendly and has things like stickers and child-size toothbrushes," she says.

Aren't cavities in baby teeth "no big deal," since they're going to fall out anyway?
Cavities in baby teeth are a big deal because you can't get rid of the bacteria that's introduced in the child's mouth by brushing, Studen-Pavlovich explains. "If a child has higher levels of bacteria in their mouth when their permanent teeth erupt, they are at a higher risk of developing more cavities."

What can I do to make sure my child's first dental visit goes well?
The most important thing is to watch your own attitude. "If the parent is anxious, or tells the child, 'don't be scared,' or bribes the child with an expensive toy, then the child will think, 'well, maybe I should be worried.'" It's much better to remain calm and matter of fact when you're talking to your child about visiting the dentist.

What should I do if my child is afraid to go to the dentist?
An ideal first step is to schedule an introductory visit that won't involve an exam or any procedures. "A good dentist will first try to adapt your child to the environment, by showing the child the various instruments, such as the suction machine," Studen-Pavlovich says. If your child is extremely anxious at that first exam, you might ask if you can have him or her sit on your lap while the dentist does the exam.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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