Whether your toddler has a mouth filled with teeth or only a few poking through, it’s time to start thinking about keeping his adorable smile healthy. Sure, baby teeth don’t hang around forever (they generally start to fall out to make way for adult teeth by the time your child is six or seven), but it’s still important to keep those tiny teeth — and gums — in tip-top shape while they’re saving the spots for grownup teeth.
1. Choosing a dentist
When it comes to picking a first dentist, many people take their tot to Mom and Dad’s dentist — and this is often a good choice, particularly if your dentist has experience with young children. You may also want to consider taking your child to a pediatric dentist — someone who has additional training in caring for children’s oral health. You can find one in your area by searching here.
Another bonus to choosing a pediatric dentist: He’ll be prepared to deal with any squirming or hollering in the dental chair, and he’ll have a waiting room filled with distractions such as kids’ books and toys.
2. Preparing for your first visit
- Read up and role-play: Read books about visiting the dentist and encourage your toddler to play “dentist” with their favorite toy or stuffed animal.
- Use positive language: Explain to your child that a dentist is a doctor who helps build healthy, strong teeth. But avoid getting into much technical detail about the visit, which may confuse more than it clears up.
- Come prepared: Bring along comfort toys and distractions for the waiting room and the dentist’s chair, and plan a treat for after the visit.
- Stay relaxed: Your own stress or anxiety about the dentist may be more noticeable than you think, especially for a toddler or young child. If you’re cheerful and calm, you set the tone for your child to be, too.
- Be a good cheerleader: Congratulate your child whenever you can (“Good job opening wide!”). Remember to be supportive as opposed to critical if your child is having a tough time cooperating. And keep in mind: Even if he kicks and screams the whole time, it’s nothing an experienced pediatric dentist hasn’t seen before.
3. The first visit
Your child's first visit to the dentist should happen before his or her first birthday. The general rule is six months after eruption of the first tooth. Taking your child to the dentist at a young age is the best way to prevent problems such as tooth decay, and can help parents learn how to clean their child's teeth and identify his or her fluoride needs. After all, decay can occur as soon as teeth appear.
Bringing your child to the dentist early on often leads to a lifetime of good oral care habits and acclimates your child to the dental office, thereby reducing anxiety and fear, which will make for plenty of stress-free visits in the future.
Many first visits are nothing more than introductory icebreakers to acquaint your child with the dentist and the practice. If your child is frightened, uncomfortable or non-cooperative, a rescheduling may be necessary. Patience and calm on the part of the parent and reassuring communication with your child are very important in these instances. Short, successive visits are meant to build the child's trust in the dentist and the dental office, and can prove invaluable if your child needs to be treated later for any dental problem.
Child appointments should always be scheduled earlier in the day, when your child is alert and fresh. For children under 36 months, the parent may need to sit in the dental chair and hold the child during the examination. Or, parents may be asked to wait in the reception area so a relationship can be built between your child and the dentist.
4. After the visit
Based on how your toddler’s teeth look, your dentist will let you know when to make the next visit. Most experts recommend that toddlers see the dentist about every six months — as long as there are no major problems. So don’t forget to schedule your child’s second appointment on your way out the door!