What to Expect at Your Toddler's First Visit to the Dentist

Learn proper toddler tooth care.

Toddlers brushing teeth
Igor Emmerich

Toddlers are notoriously uncooperative when it comes to maintaining personal hygiene. Screaming during bath time? Check. Full-on meltdown over a simple attempt to comb their hair? Many of us have been there. When it comes to a young child's dental care, taking care of a toddler's teeth can seem a difficult (not to mention dangerous) proposition.

To help parents of young children better manage this incredibly important aspect of toddler hygiene and health, Mary J.

Hayes, DDS, MS, a Diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry and dentist at Pediatric Dental Health Association LTD., in Chicago, offered tips. Here’s what she had to say:

When is the best time to start brushing a child’s teeth?

Tooth brushing is best started as a routine when your child is an infant – as soon as teeth appear, they can be brushed.

Can you give an example of a good tooth brushing routine for parents and toddlers?

When a child becomes a toddler, he or she might want to be in charge of tooth brushing. And they can resist brushing especially at night because they don't want to go to bed. Parents need to remember that they are in charge of brushing as the child does not have the skill to clean the teeth properly. 

Any tips for making the process easier?

Here are a few ideas that parents can try with toddlers:

  • The child can brush AFTER the parent – as long as the child cooperates with brushing, then the child can 'earn' his turn.
  • Try to avoid brushing teeth when the child is overtired. Brushing is good to do midday. Kids who don't want to go to bed will often start acting out when brushing begins. 

What about kids who really fight the process?

For parents whose toddlers who cry and fight for brushing, remember to be calm and keep your own emotions from reinforcing the child's dismay at doing something the child does not want to do.

Get help from another adult -- one brushes and one deals with the behavior.

Brush fast, and set limits. Try saying, "I'm going to brush until I finish counting to 10." And be done by the time you get to 10. Be persistent and remember that good oral health is critical to overall health. Get advice and directions from your dentist. You are aiming for brushing two times per day for 2 minutes with flossing where teeth touch.

What is the right age to bring a toddler to a pediatric dentist?

Dental visits for children start at age one. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry all agree: Professional dental visits for evaluation and the first cleaning are to begin at first birthday.

How do you suggest a parent prepare a toddler for a dentist visit? 

Preparing children for the dentist will be helped by taking the child to a dentist who is used to young children. There are books to read before a visit. Suggestions include: Doctor De Soto, ABC Dentist: Healthy Teeth from A to Z, Just Going to the Dentist, The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist and Dora the Explorer: Show Me Your Smile!


There are also videos available. In our office, we have an introductory film for parents. 

At the dentist, the child can watch others (modeling) get care. Parents can look for a dentist familiar with children, whose office is child friendly. Parents need to keep a reassuring and supportive attitude for the child. Ahead of time, let the child know the dentist will be counting and 'brushing' his or her teeth and go into teaching the child about teeth and why they are important. 

Some dentists do not allow parents of young children to accompany them into the exam. Is this a common practice? 

Many dentists do have parents in the treatment areas. Some do not. Parents need to ask what are the policies of the dental office before they go to minimize surprises.

There are pros and cons to this: Some children do better accompanied by their parents  and others do not. In our office, we keep parents and kids together to be able to teach both, the child and the adult, about the toddler's dental care. 

What can a parent expect at a toddler's first dentist visit?

The first dental visit includes a clinical exam of the teeth, gums, bite and dental structures. Oral hygiene should be reviewed and a daily routine promoted. Diet of the child in relation to decay risk also is reviewed at this time. The parent should leave knowing what habits to work on for brushing, flossing, diet and when to return for reevaluation. 

Why should a parent choose a pediatric dentist vs. a general dentist? 

A pediatric dentist is a dentist specializing in children. After dental school, finishing as a general dentist, a pediatric dentist studies in an additional two or three-year residency. This is similar to what a doctor must do to be a pediatrician. Growth and development, orthodontics, decay prevention and restoration, behavior management and working with special needs, challenging medical and emotional child situations -- these are the foundation of pediatric dentistry. 

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