Ask any new parent when their child’s first trip to the pediatrician should be, and they’ll say, “The first visit to the doctor should be right away!” And they’ll be right. Many new parents schedule this first visit shortly after giving birth.
But if you ask the same parent when their child’s first trip to the dentist should be, that’s harder to say.
The official recommendations by both the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) say that a dental home should be established for a child no later than their first birthday.
The AAP has been recommending this standard since 2003, though most patients tell me that their pediatricians are unaware of this decade-old guideline.
The AAPD defines a dental home as an “ongoing relationship between the dentist and the patient, inclusive of all aspects of oral health care delivered in a comprehensive, continuously accessible, coordinated, and family-centered way.” Much like a medical home, your child’s dental home will be a consistent anchoring for their general health until they leave home.
If you haven’t taken your child to the dentist by 12 months, you are not alone. A 2015 study showed that only 1 percent of almost 95,000 children had their first dental visit by age one. Another study in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association found that the average age for a child’s first visit was two years old.
Many parents may be under the impression that dental health is mostly aesthetic and doesn’t play too important a role in their children’s general well-being. An early visit to the dentist is an opportunity to recognize, diagnose, and hopefully prevent dental cavities.
Although preventable, dental cavities are the most common chronic disease of childhood, according to the CDC, being four times as prevalent as asthma.
This disease results in children missing over 50 million hours of school each year and accounts for roughly $20 billion dollars in all health care expenses for children aged 5-17. Studies show that earlier visits to the dentist result in fewer future treatment needs and fewer costs.
There are many other things to look for in a child’s mouth besides cavities. At your child’s first appointment, a dentist will provide a comprehensive examination of his entire mouth.
That means we don’t just look at the teeth, but also the gums, soft tissues of the mouth, the developing jaws, and we even assess the airway. And of course, the dentist or hygienist will also perform a dental cleaning and, if appropriate for your child, will apply fluoride to prevent cavities from developing.
One of the most important parts of these early dental appointments is also parental education. Your dentist may ask you how much juice your child drinks, or if she falls asleep with a bottle, sucks his thumb or uses a pacifier and how often?
Here’s a list of some other information we’ll go over with new parents:
- Proper oral hygiene at home
- Dietary recommendations to help prevent cavities
- Stopping “non-nutritive” oral habits, like pacifier use
- How to placate a teething child
- Differences in fluoride levels of municipal, well, and bottled waters
- How the development of the mouth affects speech patterns
- When baby teeth should fall out and permanent teeth come in
- What to do in cases of dental trauma
- How to recognize sleep apnea in children
While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of what the first appointment could involve, the main goal of this visit is to provide your child with an enjoyable first dental experience and help you feel empowered to keep your child’s mouth healthy.
If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to schedule your child’s first dental appointment.
After making that first appointment, to prepare your child for their first visit, the most important thing you can do is start talking positively about the dentist. Children with fears about dentists usually learn those fears from adults.
Children’s brains are like sponges, and they are good at picking up on cues. Show your kids that you like going to the dentist. Take them with you when you go. Sit them down on your lap in the dentist’s chair. And smile!