What You Need to Know.
Published: January 29, 2015
By: Paige Townley
There are many “firsts” in the first two years of a child’s life: first smile, first tooth, first word and first step, just to name a few. Included on that list should be a first dental visit.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, a child should be taken to the dentist for his first checkup when his first tooth appears, or no later than his first birthday. While many parents choose not to take children to the dentist quite that early – it’s not uncommon for a first dental visit to be made when the child is around 18 months to two years old – scheduling a dental appointment no later than a child’s second birthday is important, according to the AAPD.
“This is so we can begin to advise parents on brushing techniques and dietary habits that will ensure healthy, happy teeth,” says Dr. Andrew Richardson of Cahaba Heights Pediatric Dentistry.
“The second reason is that with everything, it takes time for children to get used to new things, especially the dentist. I believe the earlier your child comes to a pediatric dentist, the quicker they will warm up and understand what we do and begin to enjoy coming to see us.”
While that time frame may seem a bit soon, starting dental visits early is the key to a lifetime of good dental health, adds Dr. Olga M. Sanchez-Hernandez of McCalla Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry. “The dental visit should be thought of as a well- baby check up with the child’s pediatrician,” she says.
And just like children should see a pediatrician, they should also be taken to a pediatric dentist instead of a family dentist, adds Dr. Michelle Bajjalieh of Alabama Pediatric Dentistry. “Pediatric dentists have two to three years of specialized training beyond dental school,” she explains. “Plus, with pediatric dentists, the offices are ‘child- friendly.”
At the first dental visit, the appointment is just as much about educating parents about oral hygiene, diet, growth, and development as it is cleaning and examining the child’s teeth and gums. In fact, it’s not uncommon for children to be too scared and nervous to let the dentist even clean their teeth. That’s where the expertise of a pediatric dentist comes into play.
Most say they try to make the visit as fun and nonthreatening as possible. Along with the basics of teeth brushing and information for parents, many dentists and pediatric dentists have toys, books, TVs in waiting rooms and even in the examination rooms to help distract and put children at ease.
Preparing for the first visit
“The parents know their children best, so they many times know how to properly explain things to their children,” says Dr. Lisa Miller, a local pediatric oral surgeon who sees children of all ages, including even only months old.
“I feel it is always helpful if the child knows that they are coming to see me in the office…but it is not necessary for parents to go into great detail about the appointment,” Miller says.
If a child is too scared to sit in the chair, most pediatric dentists will let them sit in the parent’s lap during the exam. “You would be surprised how that little change from a dental chair to their mom’s lap eases the child’s fear,” Richardson adds. “Just the security of being close to their parent gives them enough confidence and strength to let me clean and examine their teeth.”
If the comfort of mom’s lap still doesn’t ease the child’s nerves, the first visit, or even the first few visits, can be more about teaching the child about the dentist visit instead. “We don’t force children to do anything during a visit if they aren’t comfortable,” says Dr. Michael S. Anglin. “If we see that there are no dental issues that need to be addressed at the time, then we just try to help them get through their fears. There’s no reason to traumatize them.”
Sometimes simply pretending the parent is the dentist and the child is laying in their lap, being examined, can help, says Dr. Lauten Johnson of Pediatric and Adolescent Dentistry. “Parents should avoid the words ‘shot, needles, hurt, pain’ when referring to the dentist. Most parents that have had a bad experience at the dentist should not share that with their child,” Johnson adds.
If a child isn’t working through his or her fears of the dentist quickly, the important thing for parents to remember, says Sanchez-Hernandez, is to continue taking them to the dentist periodically. “Don’t make the mistake of not bringing them to the dentist because they didn’t behave the way you expected them to and are waiting until they are older for them to be ‘ready,’” she says. “Even if they do not initially like it or understand why they need to come to the dentist, exposing them to the experience consistently will eventually help them overcome the fear.”
Miller says it is important for parents to be honest with their children. “It always makes my job more difficult when the patient was told they are not getting a tooth out, when in reality, that is why they are coming to see me. The child then feels like I am being untruthful and untrustworthy…if parents are not certain how to answer one of their children’s questions, they can bring it to the appointment and we will discuss it in their consultation.”
Paige Townley is a freelance writer.
Plan Ahead for Dental Success
Going to the dentist can be a worrisome experience for anyone, especially for a child who doesn’t understand. Here are some tips to keep your child’s first dental visit all smiles.
- Maintain a positive attitude. “Children feed off the fear of their parents and are more likely to enter our office with a trusting attitude and smiling face when they know that their mom and dad enjoy visiting their dentist,” says Dr. Clark Thomas of Pediatric & Adolescent Dentistry.
- Schedule a meet and greet. A child might relax easier with the new faces if she has a chance to meet the dental office staff before the actual appointment and check out the office.
- Schedule an appointment for a time when the child will be well rested.
- Don’t talk about negative dental experiences in front of the child. “Parents should be aware that children listen to everything,” says Tabitha Gatrey of Pediatric Smiles. “If a parent or another person had a bad experience, those conversations should not be discussed where a child could hear.”
- Make dental activities fun at home. “Let them hold their toothbrush and play with the floss,” says Dr. Angelica Rohner. “Try to teach them to lie back in your lap or on a chair to have their teeth brushed. Then “count” their teeth as the dentist will when checking for cavities.” “Find a toothpaste and toothbrush the kids like and let them see you brushing your teeth. Brushing teeth in the bathtub can make toothpaste cleanup easier because most kids are not effective spitters,” Johnson says.
- Explain who a dentist is and what they do before the visit. “Talk with them in a way that they understand and talk the visit up as fun and exciting,” says Dr. Andrew Richardson. “Everyone has some fear or discomfort when they hear the words ‘dental appointment.’”
- Provide the child with resources that help explain what to expect, such as a storybook about a character going to the dentist.