Those chubby cheeks! That infectious laugh! Parenthood brings on many joys, along with just as many challenges and questions. Every parent wants to do what’s best for their child and make sure they grow up happy and healthy. With everything else going on in a child’s early life, it’s easy to let dental care slip through the cracks. Parents often don’t know what the recommendations are and why they are in place. We would like to clear up some of the confusion:

When should I bring my child to their first dental visit?

BEFORE BABY’S FIRST BIRTHDAY. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentists (AAPD) recommends establishing a “dental home” by age one or within six months of the eruption of the first baby tooth (source). This visit consists of what is called a “knee-to-knee” exam, a gentle cleaning with a toothbrush, and the application of fluoride varnish. Then, we will discuss with you the child’s health and habits and make a plan for prevention. Here is a great video of what the exam is like.

What is the dentist looking for at these early visits?

Caries (Cavities): Early Childhood Caries (also known as “baby bottle tooth decay”) is defined as any tooth decay before age 6. Severe Early Childhood Caries is defined as ANY sign of a cavity by age 3 (source-AAPD). After all, those teeth have only been in the mouth for a period of months, so cavities forming in a toddler shows us that something is not happening the way it should be—diet, hygiene habits, etc. If your child has a cavity, we at SmileAlive can often treat them in our office, or we are happy to refer them to one of the trusted pediatric specialists here in the Eugene/Springfield area.

Development: The dentist checks for proper sequence and timing of tooth eruption. The shape, size, and spacing of the teeth are also checked to try to identify problems that may occur down the road. A dentist can also help identify developmental problems like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome as well as other developmental barriers.

Prevention: The dentist is looking for early signs of bad habits such as plaque accumulating on the teeth, food debris left on the teeth, and changes in the bite due to thumb sucking in older children. Dentists are also mandatory reporters, meaning they have been specially trained to identify certain signs of abuse, including oral trauma and sexually transmitted infections.

Reduce Dental Anxiety: Early, regular dental visits set up a positive relationship with the dentist and establish good habits that will last a lifetime. So when Jackson goes over his handlebars, or Sophia slips taking her first steps and bumps her mouth on the coffee table, they are already familiar with the office, the staff, and what is expected of them when they come in. This can take away a huge amount of stress in a dental emergency. So often, we hear from our adult patients, “I had a bad experience as a kid and now I hate going to the dentist.” We strive to make those early visits easy and comfortable so the child sees dental care as a normal, stress-free part of caring for their body.

Why fix a baby tooth if it’s just going to fall out anyway?

Often, a cavity in a baby tooth will develop into something more serious before the tooth falls out. For instance, the primary second molar erupts at around age 2 and won’t fall out until around age 12 (here‘s an eruption chart for baby teeth). So if a child gets a small cavity in that tooth at age 7, if left untreated, it will almost certainly develop into a painful infection before it falls out naturally. In this case, a small filling will save this child from needing extensive, uncomfortable treatment before the tooth falls out.

One of the important functions of baby teeth is to maintain space in the jaw for the permanent teeth, so if they are extracted before they fall out naturally, orthodontics is often required to re-establish space for the permanent teeth to erupt properly (source). In addition, childhood cavities and poor oral health have been associated with lower self esteem, poor performance in school, and difficulty developing proper speech.

Most tragically, in rare cases, an infection resulting from an untreated cavity can travel to the brain and cause death. In 2007, a 12-year-old boy named Deamonte Driver made headlines when he died of a brain abscess from an untreated dental infection.

The Bottom Line:
Children should start seeing the dentist by age one to establish a “dental home” and start them off on the road to a lifetime of good oral health.

Thanks for reading!