February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, which makes it the perfect time to establish a relationship with a dentist for your child, if you haven’t already. Every child should see a dentist as soon as they get their first tooth or arrive at their first birthday, whichever comes sooner.
FIRST DENTIST VISIT
During that first visit, you establish a “dental home” for your child, a place where he or she gets to know the dentist and thereby avoids the fear so many people develop about seeing a dentist. Also, if there are problems, the dentist can identify them early and address them before they turn into painful or damaging conditions. During children’s first dental visits, we assess their oral health, provide some fluoride varnish, and send them on their way. Simple as that.
Oral health includes “the ability to speak, smile, smell, taste, touch, chew, swallow and convey a range of emotions through facial expressions with confidence and without pain, discomfort and disease of the craniofacial complex,” according to the World Dental Federation. Basically, dentists are your first line of defense against problems that could prevent your children from getting good nutrition, from being able to communicate properly, and from feeling insecure or embarrassed because of speech impediments or physical deformities.
WHEN TO SEE A DENTIST AFTER THAT
As long as children have good oral health and remain pain-free, they can see their dentist every six months. If they’ve had a cavity in the past 12 months, they should see the dentist every three months since they are at high risk for dental caries. If children experience pain or swelling in their mouths, it’s best to make an appointment. Unlike some medical conditions, by the time children feel pain they often need treatment. When you call to make an appointment, be sure to describe the symptoms—what they are and when they started—so the scheduler understands the urgency of the situation and can get you in right away, if necessary. If children have swelling that seems to interfere with their breathing, go to the hospital emergency room.
HOW TO AVOID A TRIP TO THE DENTIST
Teaching your child good oral health habits is the best way to avoid seeing the dentist more than a couple times a year. Allowing your child to brush their own teeth from a young age is a great idea, as long as parents brush for them afterwards until children are about eight years old. Children younger than eight rarely have the dexterity to brush well enough to clean their teeth appropriately. Parents should also teach children to floss. If there’s space between teeth, there’s no reason to floss, but if teeth touch, food can get trapped and cause plaque to build up, which can lead to cavities. In fact, most children’s cavities occur between teeth, not on the chewing surface.
In addition to identifying cavities, dentists like to see young patients to make sure they are developing normally. With some variation, most children get their first tooth between six months old and a year. By age two, they generally have all their baby teeth. Around age six, children begin getting their first permanent teeth, often the lower front teeth and then molars. By age 12 or 13, children have all their adult teeth except their third molars, or wisdom teeth. Wisdom teeth arrive on the scene in late adolescence, around age 17 or 18. Since most of us do not have room for these additional molars, it’s a good idea to have adolescents assessed to see whether they should have their wisdom teeth extracted. It’s far easier to do so before those molars fully develop and potentially cause other dental issues.
DENTISTS ARE NICE
I know the idea of going to the dentist isn’t too appealing, but most of us are nice people who like to help others. I became a dentist because I love science and I think there’s no better feeling than making my patients feel better, from turning children’s tears of pain into smiles of relief.
Stuart Mauger is a dentist at Lakeside Health Center, part of MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.