When your baby’s first tooth erupts, it’s a big deal. It’s a rite of passage — a sign they’re growing up (way too fast). And let’s be real, it’s just so cute!
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That tooth is just the first of many more to come. And keeping all 20 baby teeth healthy and clean is important to your baby’s health. It’s also the beginning of instilling in them a lifelong commitment to good dental care — including brushing, flossing and visiting the dentist regularly.
But when should kids start going to the dentist, and what does a dentist even do for baby teeth? General dentist Anne Clemons, DMD, explains.
When should babies start going to the dentist?
You should take your child for a first visit to the dentist by age 1 or within six months after the first appearance of their first tooth, whichever comes first. Babies tend to sprout their first tooth around 6 months old. And more are usually quick to follow. So, scheduling that first dentist visit right around their first birthday is a safe bet for most kids.
Following that initial visit, many dentists recommend children come back every six months. Regular visits help build up your child’s comfort and confidence in visiting the dentist. It also gives the dentist plenty of time to monitor the development of their teeth and promptly treat any potential problems.
Why do baby teeth matter so much?
Baby teeth (also called primary teeth) will fall out and be replaced by permanent teeth, probably starting around age 6 or so. So, it can be tempting to think of them as somewhat disposable. But in reality, those baby teeth are important to your child’s development.
Among other important roles, baby teeth aid in the development of clear speech. And they help give your child’s permanent teeth a healthy start. In fact, decay and infections in baby teeth can damage their permanent teeth. So, even though those teeth are temporary, caring for them is really important for your child’s dental health.
Like so many other things, dental concerns are more easily treated when they’re caught early. Or even better, prevented to begin with.
“Catching cavities early and learning how to prevent them in the first place is the best way to keep your child’s baby teeth — and eventually their permanent teeth — healthy,” Dr. Clemons states.
Choosing a dentist
When choosing your child’s dentist, you may be wondering whether you can just take your little nugget to your own dentist’s office, or if a pediatric dentist is a must.
General dentists are trained to care for your oral health starting at infancy and all through your adult years. Pediatric dentists are more specialized and primarily treat babies, kids and teens. They have at least two additional years of training beyond dental school, where they focus specifically on childhood dentistry and childhood development.
Dr. Clemons says whether your baby sees a general dentist or a pediatric dentist is a matter of your family’s preferences. “All dentists can address your child’s oral health care needs. But a pediatric dentist, their staff and even their office décor are typically geared to care for children and can help put them at ease.”
If your child is showing signs of developmental delays or if you have concerns about their growth, you may want to consider a pediatric dentist. If you’re unsure, ask your dentist or a child’s healthcare provider, like a pediatrician, what they recommend for your child.
What happens at your child’s first dental visit?
What happens during a kid’s first dentist appointment will vary some based on their age, any issues they’re experiencing and other factors.
But you can expect that their first few visits to the dentist will be mostly a chance to get your child comfortable with the process and for the dentist to share their best advice.
The dentist will likely also do an exam of your child’s teeth. Some dentists may ask the parent to sit in the dental chair and hold their child during the exam. During the examination, the dentist will check your child’s existing teeth for decay, examine your child’s bite, and look for any potential issues with their gums, jaw and oral tissues. If indicated, the dentist will clean any teeth and assess the need for fluoride.
Their dentist will likely also share advice with you about oral health care for children, discuss any dental developmental issues and answer your questions.
Topics your dentist may discuss with you include:
- Good oral hygiene practices for your child’s teeth and gums.
- Cavity prevention, including best practices for brushing and flossing.
- Fluoride needs.
- Oral habits (like thumb sucking, tongue thrusting and lip sucking).
- Developmental milestones.
- Proper nutrition.
- Scheduling future dental visits.
What about dental X-rays?
You’re probably used to getting dental X-rays taken every year or so. But X-rays aren’t necessarily going to be part of your child’s dental routine at first.
“There is no hard-and-fast rule for when to start getting dental X-rays,” Dr. Clemons notes. “Some children who may be at higher risk for dental problems, such as kids prone to baby bottle tooth decay or kids with cleft lip/palate, should have X-rays taken earlier than others. But there’s a lot of variation.”
Most children will have X-rays taken around the age of 5 or 6. That’s because as children begin to get their adult teeth, X-rays will play a more important role. X-rays help your child’s dentist see if all of their adult teeth are growing in their jaw, if they have any bite problems, and whether their teeth are clean and healthy.
Dental hygiene for babies and toddlers
In between regular dental visits, daily oral hygiene should be part of your baby’s routine. That includes habits like:
- Wiping baby’s gums with a soft cloth before they even have teeth.
- Brushing baby’s teeth (or tooth, as the case may be) twice a day.
- Using floss daily once your baby has two teeth that touch.
- Discouraging thumb sucking.
- Avoiding bottle feeding in bed.
- Weaning from a pacifier around their first birthday.
- Switching from a bottle to a cup when baby is about 18 months old.
- Limiting sugar in your child’s diet.
Starting regular dental care early is important to your child’s oral and overall health. As you show off baby’s new chompers to your friends and family, make it a priority to get in touch with a dentist. They want a look at those pearly whites, too.