Maybe because dentists are also called “tooth doctors,” many folks don’t realize just how early in life a child’s first visit should be. After all, kids don’t even have all of their primary teeth until they’re about 3. Why on earth would they need a “tooth doctor”?
So it’s no surprise that only about half of American kids have ever seen a dentist by the age of 2 (let alone a biological dentist). Yet the reality is that their first visit should happen once their first tooth erupts or by the age of 1.
Yes, really. By the age of 1.
For one, it helps them get used to the dental environment in a safe and comfortable way. When you think about it, going to the dentist is pretty weird. There are strange sounds and sights and smells. People are putting their fingers and dental instruments into your mouth.
The earlier the first visit, the more likely it is that future ones will go smoothly. The child learns that the dentist, hygienist, and assistants are friendly people they can trust. As they return for their regular exams and cleanings – and as their parents and other caregivers do, too – they come to understand that it’s one of the things people do to stay healthy and well as can be.
Instead of thinking of the dentist only as someone you see when in pain or when other dental troubles arise, they learn that we’re here to help them keep their teeth healthy and strong – to keep problems from cropping up in the first place. It can even become something they look forward to.
Just as important: That early visit gives us a great opportunity to evaluate your child’s orofacial development. If we see potential problems emerging, we can advise you on what you can do to correct them and promote healthier growth. If all is well, we at least have a good baseline to judge future changes by.
For instance, if a child does not or cannot breathe through the nose, the sinuses won’t develop properly. Routine mouth-breathing results in an anterior open bite: the molars no longer meet when the mouth is closed. This leads to the development of a narrow, high-vaulted palate. (Finger-sucking leads to similar results.) If the tonsillar or adenoidal tissues are enlarged, the bony interrelationships will be altered. Certain areas of bone won’t grow efficiently. In all cases, the child’s airway is narrowed.
And that, of course, has its own health consequences, oral and systemic, including crooked, crowded teeth and a bite that’s off. On the other hand, encouraging healthy orofacial development can stave off the need for orthodontics later, not to mention the whole body effects of a bite that’s misaligned or imbalanced – chronic headaches, backaches, and more.
But regular dental visits are just one part – albeit an important one – of nurturing the habits that maintain good oral health for a lifetime. There’s lots more you can do at home.
- For infants, gently clean their gums with a damp infant washcloth or gauze after each feeding.
- If you feel you must let your child sleep with a bottle – something we don’t recommend – fill it with water only.
- Once your child’s teeth begin to erupt, gently brush them twice daily with a small, soft bristled toothbrush and fluoride-free toothpaste. Gently floss their teeth once a day. They should be able to start learning to brush on their own – with supervision, of course – at age 2 or 3, and should be ready to learn how to floss on their own by age 6.
- Limit ultra-processed foods, especially those made with added sugars and other refined carbs. Encourage them to eat as wide a variety of whole foods as possible, especially fresh vegetables. (Most kids will take to fruit on their own because of the sweetness.) You’ll find some great, kid-tested tips for doing this here and here.
- Also limit fruit juice, soft drinks, and other sugary, acidic drinks that can destroy tooth enamel.
- Make sure your child gets the right amount of sleep and at least the minimum recommended physical activity for their age. Sleep and exercise are both excellent supports for promoting good oral health.
A final word: If you’ve been lax about your child’s dental health to this point, no beating yourself up. There’s no shame in not doing things you didn’t know you needed to do. Rather, seize the opportunity to start changing things for the better. As February is Children’s Dental Health Month, there really is no better time to do it.