When should your child first visit the dentist? It might be earlier than you think

Most American children don’t see their family dentist until they are well over 2 years old, far later than is recommended by both dental and medical professionals.

That’s one of the key findings from a 2009 survey of American children’s oral health, conducted by Morpace, Inc., on behalf of Delta Dental Plans Association.* Delta Dental commissioned the survey to gain greater knowledge about the state of children’s oral health.

The survey of primary caregivers revealed that, for those children who had seen a dentist – and 34% had not – the average age at the initial visit was 2.6 years. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that a child go to the dentist by age 1 or within six months after the first tooth erupts. Primary teeth typically begin growing in around 6 months of age.

Importance of primary teeth not recognized

Among children who have never visited the dentist or who have not seen a dentist in the last 12 months, the most frequently mentioned reason (62%) was that “the child is too young” or “doesn’t have enough teeth yet.” Lack of insurance coverage was cited by 12% of the caregivers.

According to the AAPD, it is very important to keep primary (or “baby”) teeth in place until they are lost naturally. The primary teeth are important for many reasons including:

  • Helping children chew properly to maintain good nutrition.
  • Involvement in speech development.
  • Helping save space for permanent teeth.
  • Promoting a healthy smile that helps children feel good about the way they look.

“Many people don’t understand how important their children’s baby teeth are to lifelong oral health,” said Kevin Sheu, DDS, director of professional services for Delta Dental. “There’s a continuing need for more education to teach practices, such as proper techniques for brushing and flossing, that will ensure lifelong oral health. The first dentist visit is a great opportunity for parents to learn how best to care for their children’s teeth.”

Calming dental visit jitters

If you begin taking your children to the dentist around the time the first tooth erupts, then they are probably too young to be nervous. But if you’ve waited until your child is older (for example, 2 years), then he or she may have some anxiety at the time of the first visit.

What’s the best way to prepare your child for the whirring machinery, sharp instruments and a stranger telling him or her to “open wide”?

  • Give your child a sneak preview. Take your child with you for your next checkup to see you having your teeth examined and cleaned.
  • Learn more about it. Lots of books and online resources are geared toward teaching children more about dental health and dentist visits. Delta Dental’s children’s web site www.mysmilekids.com has stories and fun activities to help children learn about their teeth.
  • Play around. Take turns being the dentist and the patient with your child. Examine each other’s teeth with a mirror or use your fingers to count each other’s teeth so that your child will be familiar with the feel of a dentist examination.
  • Timing is everything. Plan plenty of time so that the dental visit isn’t rushed, and make sure your child is well-rested before the visit so that he or she feels relaxed and comfortable.