Squirming toddlers, anxious parents and dental exams: When it comes to the choosing the right dentist for small children, you want a dental practice that’s comfortable caring for the youngest patients from the moment their baby teeth emerge.
Your child’s dentist will not only provide hands-on care but also educate you on how to prevent problems like tooth decay and maintain good oral health. If you’re looking for a children’s dentist office, here are some pointers:
“The first step is making sure your children start seeing a dentist as early as possible, at the recommended age of 1 year old, so we can help reduce the risk of tooth decay,” says Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist with Augusta Pediatric Dentistry in Maine, and a spokesperson with the American Dental Association.
Make Regular Dental Visits
Seeing a dentist every six months is standard advice. However, the right interval between dental visits actually depends on your child’s oral health needs. “Children should see the dentist regularly,” Shenkin says, but the interval between visits could be more or less frequent depending on their age and specific problems. In some cases, for instance, a dentist might want to see a child at high risk of dental disease far more often to enable multiple fluoride treatments.
As a parent, you play a major role in your child’s ongoing dental health. Your child’s dentist can teach you how to prevent tooth decay from the start. You’ll get expert tips like these:
- Brushing baby teeth. “At an early age, we really want parents to be wiping the teeth,” Shenkin says. You can use a damp washcloth or a baby-sized toothbrush with a soft head – soft bristles are important. During visits, dental professionals can demonstrate how parents can position babies to safely brush their teeth and feel comfortable doing so.
- Toothpaste type and amount. Fluoride toothpaste is advised – at a safe amount. Small children don’t need a whole strip of toothpaste on a toothbrush, Shenkin says. Kids who still lack the ability to spit will likely swallow excess toothpaste, he explains. “We recommend for kids under 3 only a rice-sized amount of toothpaste on a toothbrush,” he says. “From 3 to 6, we recommend a pea-sized amount of toothpaste.”
- Flossing without biting. Like adults, kids should floss. “We want them to start flossing when the back molars erupt, at about 2.5 years of age or so, and they start contacting each other.” Smaller kids don’t have the manual dexterity to floss on their own. For parents, the trick is to floss young children’s teeth without getting bitten themselves. Plastic pre-flossed flossers are a safe option, Shenkin says.
- Perils of juice and sugar. “Juice in sippy cups is actually a big problem,” Shenkin says. “A lot of parents are unaware that this is an issue.” Sugar consumption is a “huge” component in the risk of tooth decay among kids, he says. Rather than drinking a lot of sugary juice, kids are better off getting their vitamin C from whole fruits, which have much less sugar and the added benefit of fiber. Kids should drink more water both during the day and instead of juice at night.
- Getting dental sealants. “We do recommend dental sealants on permanent first molars,” Shenkin says. These molars, which come in at around age 6, are also known as six-year molars. Sealant consists of liquid material that fills in all the crevices and lines on the molar’s biting surface in which food and bacteria can get stuck, he explains. Kids ages 6 to 11 without sealants have almost triple the amount of first-molar cavities as kids with sealants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Building a tooth care routine. The ultimate goal is to help kids develop dental habits that will last them a lifetime. Gradually getting kids used to the feeling of flossing and incorporating a twice-daily brushing routine is “critical,” Shenkin says.
Your family dentist can provide dental care to patients of all ages. By seeing children earlier, they start off better, says Dr. Sandy Murad, a dentist with 1st Family Dental, which has multiple locations in the Chicago area. When parents wait until kids are 4 or 5 years old, she says, they may already have tooth decay. “Then the experience is more stressful for the children, rather than just being a fun experience – getting a toothbrush, getting a toy and just kind of seeing what we do.”
Family dental practices accommodate kids and adults alike. Many offices with 1st Family Dental include designated areas for kids with TVs and play areas with small slides, puzzles and books to keep them comfortable during the wait.
Parents come inside the clinical area with their children. “The nice thing is, if we have to take X-rays on the kid, the parents don’t even have to leave the room,” Murad says. “We have new digital X-rays that are not emitting radiation like before, when you had to leave the room and put a vest on.”
Although kids typically come in twice a year, some need a bit more follow up. Children with braces, for instance, often fall short on flossing and brushing, Murad says. “So we try to have them come in maybe three to four times a year, just during the braces period, to help them with hygiene and all that.”
If a child has multiple dental problems and potential behavioral issues that might make it preferable to take care of all the problems at once, possibly using stronger sedation than laughing gas, Murad says, that’s when she’ll refer that patient to a specialist like a pediatric dentist.
For infants and children with special needs, as well as for other kids, a pediatric dentist may be a good option. Some family dental practices include pediatric dentists on staff.
Pediatric dentists complete up to three years of specialty training after dental school, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry website. They work exclusively with children, from infancy through adolescence.
“When you’re training in pediatric dentistry, you have to be trained in sedation,” Shenkin says. “You have to be trained in behavior management in children, how to manage very young children and how to manage unique issues like trauma and severe tooth decay.”
Pediatric dentists and staff members like dental hygienists strive to provide a kid-friendly, reassuring atmosphere.
“We try to create an environment that’s fun and friendly and try to diminish the anxiety for parents and children alike,” Shenkin says. “We have TVs and video games and fun colors in the office and a staff that’s all geared and trained in communicating with young children and anxious parents to help alleviate those fears and anxieties.”
Dental Specialists Your Child Might See
In some cases, your family or pediatric dentist might refer your child to one of the following dental professionals to address specific issues:
- Oral surgeon. Tooth extraction, adult tooth correction and injury treatment are common reasons that kids see oral surgeons.
- Orthodontist. Crowded, protruding or too-far-apart teeth, overbites and misaligned jaws are reasons kids see orthodontists for treatment with dental appliances such as braces or clear aligners.
- Periodontist. Gum diseases such as chronic inflammation (gingivitis) or receding gums occasionally require kids to see a periodontist.
- Endodontist. Root canals may be considered for children who have trauma to permanent teeth from mouth injuries, or in some cases, for severe cavities.
- Prosthodontist. Complex dental restorations, for instance for children born with cleft palates or missing teeth, are performed by prosthodontists.
Dealing With Dental Trauma
Active kids can accidentally damage their teeth. Playground mishaps or sports injuries – even with kids wearing mouthguards – may lead to chipped, cracked or detached teeth. Contact your dentist’s office and have an after-hours number to call if your child suffers a dental injury to receive immediate advice and follow-up care.