I have to admit I’ve never been quite sure when was the best time to start taking the boys to the dentist. I worried if I took them too soon they wouldn’t really cooperate and a stressful experience make make them not want to go again but too late and they risk developing problems and needing treatment. Dr Janet Clarke of the British Dental Association has kindly agreed to fill me in on the best way to approach your child’s first appointment.
When is the best time to first take a child to the dentist?
It’s best to start taking your child with you to dentist when you go yourself (providing you’re not anxious) or else with older siblings, so that going to the dentist becomes part of normal family life. Then you, the dentist and the child can gauge when is the best time to start looking at child’s teeth, but this can be introduced gradually from a quick look at the new baby teeth as they arrive (in a social way really) until the child feels able to climb into the dental chair for a ride and have their teeth looked at “like a big boy/girl”. Ideally the child’s teeth should be given a quick check when they are all through, which is about 2 and a half, but this is a rough guide and parents and dentist need to use their judgement.
Are there any problems to look out for that might warrant an earlier trip to the dentist?
Well, as above, hopefully the child is going along with their parent already, but yes, if a parent is worried at all about how teeth are growing in or needs any advice about looking after baby teeth, then the best person to talk to is a dentist. If parents don’t have a dentist then the best thing to do is ask friends (or your health visitor if you have one) for recommendations. Some dentists are particularly good with children and other parents will often be happy to share their experiences.
Uncommonly some babies have small teeth called natal teeth that are either in their mouths from birth or else appear very shortly afterwards. If these are very wobbly or else interfere with feeding they might need to be removed, but the best thing to do is to discuss with your health visitor or dentist.
What advice do you have to ‘prepare’ a young child for a visit?
Don’t make a big thing out of it, treat it as a normal part of life, so the child does not develop any anxiety about going to the dentist. Maybe explain that they will meet a special person who will count their teeth and make sure they are looking clean and sparkly. Say that they might get to have a ride in a big chair which will lie them down, so that the dentist can have a good look at their teeth with a little mirror.
You can get them to practice opening their mouth “as wide as a lion” and maybe they might like to practice in front of the bathroom mirror and have a look at their teeth themselves.
If a parent is particularly anxious themselves, then it might be a good idea to ask another relative to take the child, but sometimes anxious parents can gain confidence themselves by seeing how easily their child adapts to going to the dentist.
Whatever you do don’t say “It won’t hurt” (child thinks – why are they telling me this, maybe it will hurt after all), or use any negative language.
What will normally happen during a child’s first visit? What sort of examination would be done?
The dentist will usually assess the child’s level of co-operation and proceed in the way this allows. For example a confident child who climbs in the chair, will be given a ride and laid flat, then have the light shone on their teeth and their teeth counted using a mirror. If there are any little bits of food or plaque that stop the dentist having a good look these might be removed with a little probe.
If the child is more hesitant and not happy to lie down, they might be examined sitting up in the chair and if a child is really shy then they might sit on their parents lap. The dentist will tailor the visit to the child’s capability.
It would be unusual to do any treatment at a first visit, unless a child was presenting with toothache. It’s much better to take a child as early as possible so that parent, child and dentist can work together to prevent problems from happening (for example, by having a good diet and maybe using fluoride varnish or chewable fluoride tablets in low fluoride areas) than the child only attending when they have a problem.
How would you deal with a child who is getting anxious during the appointment?
I would try very hard to prevent this happening, as I’ve described, but if I noticed a child getting upset I would calmly stop whatever I was doing, give lots and lots of praise for how good they had been, probably a sticker too, and then arrange for them to come back. If there were no problems I would arrange this for six months, if I thought I needed to see the child sooner I would arrange this. But lots of accentuating the positive and playing down the negative, so the child can go out feeling proud of what they have managed to achieve and associating the visit with something positive, rather than feeling like a failure and not wanting to come again.
How likely is it for young children to require some treatment at this stage and how would that be handled?
This depends, hopefully early attendance will prevent problems, but if a child does need treatment this will probably be staged and the dentist will start to introduce dental instruments by cleaning the child’s fingernail and then teeth, maybe that will take one visit. Tell, Show, Do, is a useful technique lots of dentists use to demystify the equipment and stop a child fearing the unknown. Again, lots of praise and positive reinforcement, plus a calm dentist and smiling helpful dental nurse can make dental treatment into a relatively positive experience!
Well, I hope that has put your mind at rest. Not so scary after all, hey?