Baby's first dental visit: How to make the experience less scary
Your little ones' first trip to the dental surgery doesn't have to be a scary experience, writes Claire O'Mahony
For such tiny little things, milk teeth can often cause a lot of fuss. The teething process can start anytime between three months and 12 months of age, although the majority of babies sprout their first little pearly whites between four and eight months.
Teething isn't always painful but as the teeth erupt, many babies will experience some discomfort, sleeplessness at night, red cheeks, dribbling and a chin rash. By the age of three, baby should have all his or her set of 20 primary teeth and prior to this, the all-important first visit to the dental surgery will have happened. According to Cork-based dentist Dr Anne Twomey, president of the Irish Dental Association, the international best practice and advice is that children should have had their first dental appointment by 12 months of age. "It's a bit young and sometimes can be impractical," she says. "Very often what I do here in the practice is, if I have a new mum, I will give the advice verbally to her or the baby could be in their buggy in the surgery while I'm doing a check-up and I will have a look at the child at that stage. But children definitely need to see a dentist before the age of two."
Before making that first appointment, parents can lay foundations to make sure that it's not a frightening experience for their children. Dental phobia is common so it's important that mums and dads do not transfer any of their own anxieties, if they have any, to toddlers. "Parents should be careful with the choice of words they use," says Dr Twomey. "If you say to a child 'It won't hurt', they had never thought about pain until you said it. What I would always advise to parents coming in is to tell your baby or toddler that 'We're going to the dentist and we're going to count your teeth and that's all we want to do today'. They have a vague idea of counting at that stage and it's a very simple way for the parent to explain to the child why they're here and it's logical to the child. But I wouldn't go into too much detail or mention needles and injections."
As to what actually happens on that first visit, Dr Sarah Flannery, dentist at Dublin's Seapoint Clinic, explains: "If the child is very small, then they will sit on the parent's lap for the examination, or if they are a little older, they will sit on the chair by themselves," she says. "The dentist will then examine the child's mouth and gums. Any issues like decay, habits such as thumb sucking, crowding problems, and developmental anomalies will be addressed. X-rays may be taken if needed. The dentist will then polish the child's teeth and advise the parent on oral hygiene methods and give diet advice. Prevention is the main aim of children's dentistry and so oral hygiene, diet advice and the possibility of placing fissure sealants [a smaller coating applied to the back teeth to protect them from bacteria] will be discussed in detail. This is all carried out in a very child friendly way with positive reinforcement for the child's good behaviour."
Read more: Is teething just a myth?
A vital part of preventative measures is that you start cleaning your baby's teeth as soon as they emerge. "Initially, I would suggest that with a six or seven-month-old baby, to give their teeth a little wipe with a face cloth and nothing on it, and make sure there's no food or sticky stuff on the teeth at that stage," says Dr Anne Twomey. "When the teeth come up a little further, then you can introduce a baby toothbrush and give teeth a quick little brush. They're not the most compliant at that age, but mums and dads need to be doing this." Toothpaste, with flouride, should only be introduced at a later stage, when children are two years of age and teeth should be brushed twice a day, in the morning after breakfast and in the evening, just before bed. "The teeth and gum line should be brushed. Encourage your child to spit and not swallow any toothpaste and do not rinse after brushing," advises Dr Sarah Flannery.
Children are often naturally adverse to very strong flavours and may dislike the mint taste of toothpastes but non-flavoured ones are usually available from dentists.
The biggest goal for parents should be to avoid decay in the first place and this means being conscious of children's diets. "Any child that comes into me under the age of five to six and who has a lot of decay, it's nearly always something they're drinking and it's hidden sugars," says Dr Twomey. "You don't have five-year- olds drinking cans of cola but it could be that they're drinking apple juice all the time or orange juice, both of which are loaded in sugar. The other big culprits are the cordials and snacking between meals on things like raisins, which are very sweet. My advice is very simple with small children: it's drink milk and drink water, which should be their main drink during the day." She recommends not giving children a bottle in bed with them at night, and that snacks should be savoury, such as cheeses and crackers.
Once the first dentist visit has been made, appointments should be booked every six months after because dental decay can be hidden and may not have any symptoms until the cavity is quite deep. Of course, you don't have to wait until 12 months to bring your child to the dentist. You can bring them at any stage if there is anything you are concerned about, such as lumps and bumps. And if you find yourself having to make regular dentist trips because your toddler keeps having accidents and hitting teeth, it's worth considering if there's a reason for this, apart from clumsiness. Dr Twomey says: "I've had it a number of times when you've had a three-year-old have a dreadful fall and run into a farm gate or a door and really damage their front teeth, and when you talk to the parents, they've had lots of little falls like this. The next thing I advise them to do, once we sort out the teeth, is to get their eyes tested and the amount of children who have come back six months later wearing glasses!"