Baby teeth are worth more than just a dollar under the pillow. Providing proper care and oral hygiene during a child's first year of life can mean a lifetime of good oral health.
Traditionally, parents have waited to bring their children to the dentist until primary teeth begin to appear. A 2002 consumer poll by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry shows that nearly 70 percent of parents wait until their children are 3 years old before taking them to the dentist. But a dental visit by age 1 – or within six months of the eruption of the first baby tooth – is crucial, says Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) spokesperson Cynthia E. Sherwood, DDS.
Dr. Sherwood says this early visit gives a dentist the opportunity to see potential problems such as early-childhood caries (also known as baby bottle tooth decay); educate the parent on proper oral hygiene for the child; and give the toddler a positive experience in a dental setting. This can do wonders in allaying fears and boosting the child's future attitude toward visiting the dentist, Dr. Sherwood says.
Education is the heart of the age-1 exam. "When we see a toddler, we primarily talk to the parents about growth, development, thumb sucking, bottle and breast feeding, oral hygiene and nutritional issues, use of fluoride and why baby teeth are important," Dr. Sherwood said.
During this first visit, the dentist usually will sit knee-to-knee with the parent, with the child nestled in the parent's lap, and the dentist will ask the parent to demonstrate how she or he brushes the child's teeth. Then, if parent and tot are comfortable, the dentist will turn the child around onto his or her lap, so the dentist can get a good look at the child's teeth and gums. This "pleasant, painless visit" should take no more than 15 minutes, Dr. Sherwood said.
"Sitting knee-to-knee with the parent, playing with the baby and talking with the parent, I can get a very good sense of the child's oral health care, and this position gives us a good opportunity to get a good look at the child's teeth," says Dr. Sherwood. "It's a great experience for everyone involved."
Toddler dos and don'ts:
- Take your child to the dentist within six months of the eruption of the first baby tooth, definitely by age 1.
- Follow your dentist's advice regarding nutrition, hygiene routine, fluoride and dental-visit schedule.
- Teach your child how to brush around age 3, and brush your teeth with your children to model good technique and spot problems.
- Think baby teeth don't matter "because they'll just fall out anyway."
- Allow children to have continual access to a bottle or "sippy cup" filled with anything other than water.
- Give your children the impression that visiting the dentist is unpleasant.