According to Clarice Law, DMD, MS, assistant professor in the Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics sections at the UCLA School of Dentistry, it pays to start dental visits early. "I like to see kids by age 1," Law says.
Mostly, first visits are about getting kids used to the dentist's chair and educating parents about how to best care for tiny teeth. Law says she examines a child's mouth, then spends 15 to 30 minutes talking about what she's seen and what to expect in the coming six to 12 months.
Dental Checkups in Childhood
If your child has transitioned from the bottle to cup and doesn't snack or drink in the middle of the night (both habits increase the risk of cavities), you get a one-year pass until age 2. That's when the standard six-month dental visit kicks into gear. Between ages 4 and 6, expect a first set of mouth X-rays to check for cavities lurking between the teeth.
"This can indicate that a child has been infected with bacteria that cause cavities. We'll have an idea as to whether this will be a lifetime struggle or if cavities are mostly related to dietary practices," Law says.
Prevention is the name of the game between ages 6 and 12, when baby teeth give way to permanent teeth. Look for your child's dentist to suggest a sealant -- a plastic resin that bonds to a tooth's chewing surface -- between ages 7 and 9. Cavity-prone molars (at the back of the mouth) are the most likely site for treatment. "We paint it on to prevent bacteria that cause cavities from getting into the grooves and valleys of teeth," Law says.
The First Orthodontic Visit
Also around age 7, your child's dentist will likely suggest an orthodontic evaluation. "It's old-school to wait until all permanent teeth come in at around 12 or 13 to refer kids to an orthodontist," Law says. Although most kids do wait until their early teens for braces, orthodontics is about modifying jaw growth; identifying skeletal causes of crooked teeth early ensures a beautiful smile later on.
In the end, it's the basics -- brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, flossing daily, reducing high-sugar snacks, and getting regular dental checkups -- that have the most impact on the health of kids' teeth. Of course, the toy that comes at the end of each visit seems to help, too.
Getting Ready for Your Child's First Dental Appointment
Wondering how to prepare for your child's trip to the tooth doctor? Law offers the following tips:
Be brief. Parents tend to over-talk upcoming dentist visits to prepare their child, a strategy that often backfires. The more you talk, the bigger deal it becomes. Let your child know ahead of time about the visit and leave it at that.
Be positive. Parents who have had bad dental experiences often assume their kids will, too. Don't talk about fear -- it just sets up negative associations with the dentist. "There's no reason to expect pain," Law says.
Be a presence (not a nuisance). Many parents repeat the directives given their child by the dentist or interject in other ways during office visits. But hearing multiple voices confuses your child and blocks an opportunity for bonding with her dentist. "When we need your help, we'll ask," Law says.