When should kids have their teeth examined? And how should you prepare? Read on for a fun, fear-free first trip to the dentist.

Little girl at the dentist
Credit: Shutterstock

By 2 1/2 most children have cut all of their baby teeth, so toddlerhood is a great time to instill good dental habits. "Baby teeth are important because they hold space for permanent teeth," says Judy Ann Taylor, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist in Brooklyn. Decay in baby teeth also increases the risk of decay in permanent teeth.

Although dentists now recommend that kids see a dentist for the first time by their first birthday, twice-yearly dental checkups and proper care at home are the keys to ensuring pearly whites throughout childhood. For toddlers, however, the first dental visit can be a scary proposition. Strange instruments, loud noises, and new faces can upset even the most nonchalant 2-year-old. But with careful preparation (and plenty of prizes), a first trip to the dentist can actually be fun.

Before You Go

  • Your first impulse may be to take your child to your own dentist, but this is not a good idea, unless a sizable part of her practice is children. She can probably recommend a kid-friendly dentist, however. (Friends with children are another good source of recommendations.) Or call the American Dental Association (312-440-2617; www.ada.org) or the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (312-337-2169; www.aapd.org) for an accredited pediatric dentist in your area. Then make an appointment to tour the office with your child. Observe how the staff handles children, and make sure you're comfortable with all procedures. "Parents should be in the examining room with the child," says Judy Ann Taylor, D.D.S., "and a dentist should stop working if a child gets upset or nervous." Watch out for cleanliness: Dental tools should be wrapped in plastic, the staff should wear protective gloves and masks, and patients should wear protective glasses.
  • Provide the dentist with a list of any medical conditions your child has or medications he takes. Keep your pediatrician's phone number handy, too, in case the dentist needs additional health information.
  • If your child has a sucking habit, be it thumb, pacifier, or bottle, let the dentist know, as it may affect your child's teeth and jaw. Also, be aware that sleeping with a bottle of milk or juice can cause tooth decay. "During sleep, liquids in the mouth -- which are full of sugar and bacteria -- pool around the teeth and erode them," says Dr. Taylor.
  • Talk to your child about what's going to happen. Practice brushing with your child beforehand, too, so she will be used to having a toothbrush in her mouth.

What to Expect

1. Meeting and Greeting

"To make sure your child feels comfortable, formally introduce him to the dentist on his first visit," says Judy Ann Taylor, D.D.S. A good children's dentist will explain each step of the checkup with your child, show him the tools she'll be using, and assure him that he can sit on Mommy's or Daddy's lap and stop any procedure if he's nervous.

2. Learning the Facts

Using models, an oversize brush, and "cavity creep" finger puppets, the dentist will show your child how to brush with your help. "A dentist may also explain how the cavity creeps come out at night to harm teeth and how eating nutritious meals and drinking plenty of water keeps teeth healthy," says Dr. Taylor. She'll also use this time to address your questions and concerns.

3. Mastering the Machinery

Because the spitting cup may make some scary sucking noises, the dentist will show your child how it works and how to spit into it properly. Then she'll put on a mask and gloves to count your child's teeth, using the model -- or you -- to demonstrate before putting her fingers in his mouth.

4. Cleaning and Polishing

Next, the dentist will polish your child's teeth with a rotary toothbrush. "Make sure the staff provides him with goggles or sunglasses to protect his eyes in case a tool slips or toothpaste sprays," says Dr. Taylor. Letting the child see and hear the brush before it's placed in his mouth helps put him at ease.

5. Finishing Touches

As with the other procedures she performs, the dentist will show your child how the sucking straw works before she uses it to remove extra toothpaste and saliva. As a final step, the dentist may apply a coat of topical fluoride. "I always ask the parent if it's okay to use fluoride," says Dr. Taylor, "but the research shows that periodic fluoride treatments prevent decay." A child should not eat or drink for 30 minutes after a treatment.

6. Picking a Prize

Stickers, finger puppets, crayons, key chains -- the more varied the grab bag, the better. "Prizes are a wonderful way to get kids to think the dentist's office is a fun place," says Dr. Taylor. You may want to let your child pick a prize during the cleaning if he seems nervous. But if he gets genuinely upset, "he may not be ready for his first visit," says Dr. Taylor. "In that case, cut it short and try again in a few months."

Good Habits at Home

Follow these tips to put your child on the road to a bright, healthy smile.

  • Stop sucking habits as soon as possible. They lead to potential tooth misalignment.
  • Choose a soft, kid-size brush. Replace the brush every three months.
  • Use no more than a pea-size amount of toothpaste on your child's brush. This offers adequate fluoride and protection from fluorosis, a damaging oral condition caused by overingestion of fluoride.
  • Help your toddler brush after breakfast and before bed. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children under 8 brush with parents' help.
  • Avoid starchy and sugary snacks. They stick to teeth and increase the risk of decay.
  • If your child is unable to brush, rinse her mouth with water to wash away food particles and sugar.
  • Call your community's water department to find out whether your water is fluoridated, and talk to your dentist about the best fluoride treatment.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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