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For many parents, it’s a challenge in itself to get kids to sit still. Throw in a dentist’s office with tools and loud noises, and it’s easy to see why parents may dread their child’s first visit to the dentist. And they’re not alone: Adults can even find it hard to get those dental visit-related nerves under control. Still, going to the dentist is an important part of maintaining oral health at any age.
So how old should a baby be before mom and dad schedule their first dental appointment? How often do kids need a dental checkup? And what can parents of young children do at home to keep those baby teeth healthy?
“It’s never too early to establish a dental home for our young ones,” says Gary Liu, a pediatric dentist and co-founder of Smile Generation. “The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends kids visit the dentist before the age of 1 since infants typically get their first tooth before then.”
After the first visit, pediatric dentists like Liu recommend taking a trip to the dentist every six months. But that timeline can vary from patient to patient: “There are certain instances where we may want to see kids more frequently: recent trauma to the teeth, higher risk of cavities and kids with dental phobias would benefit from more frequent visits recommended by the dentist,” Liu explains.
Julia Meyerhoff Cox’s son, Vincent, has never been fearful of going to the dentist, but she believes his practitioner played a huge role in making the experience as stress-free as possible.
“We did learn one of his baby molars didn’t develop the enamel so we needed to put on a silver cap (a stainless steel crown that covers the tooth) to protect it from cavities,” Cox says. “Vincent was nervous about it until the dentist described it as an ‘Iron Man tooth,’ so now he says he’s part super hero.”
Many pediatric dentists welcome the idea of introducing children to the world of dentistry, not only to help alleviate anxiety, but also to make kids excited about taking care of their teeth. It’s making children feel comfortable and understood that can make the biggest difference in how receptive a child is to dental work.
“Every kid has a different personality and it’s my job to figure out what makes them comfortable,” says Liu. “Some kids want to know and see everything that goes on during their visit, so I act as a fun tour guide in their exploration of dentistry. Other kids like to be distracted so storytelling, jokes and attention-grabbing antics may help them along.”
Still, it can be hard to get children excited about brushing their teeth or going to the dentist. Yahoo Life gathered some dentist and parent-approved tips to help ensure a happy smile both at home at the dentist’s office.
Expose your child to positive dental experiences
Fear of the dentist isn’t inherent in children — it’s shaped by the media they consume and the words of others.
“It’s good to plant positive imagery of what their first dental visit will be like,” Liu says. “Cartoons, stories or anecdotes of positive dental experiences will help reduce anxiety at the dentist.”
“A child’s first visit at the pediatric dentist will be fun, warm and engaging,” he adds. “It should be portrayed as something fun and not as a punishment.”
Liu says moms and dads can also do some role playing with their kids in advance of a dental visit, acting out what an appointment might look like using dental toys and stuffed animals.
Brush alongside your kids
Dr. Susie Lloyd, a dentist at Bupa Dental Care in the U.K., says it’s ultimately up to parents to model healthy habits to children. That includes brushing their own teeth.
Liu agrees, recommending brushing and flossing for your kids until they have the dexterity to tie their own shoes. After that, it’s all about teaching by modeling good behaviors.
“You are the best role model for showing your children how to look after their smile,” says Lloyd. “So consider brushing together to make sure everyone brushes for the full two minutes.”
Marissa Baxter’s 5-year-old son, Dakota, initially struggled with establishing a good dental routine. Baxter found that leading by example was helpful. “In the beginning, it was hard to get him to brush his teeth,” she says, “but once he started watching myself and my husband brush our teeth he wanted to follow suit.”
Get the right toothbrush and toothpaste
If your child has a cool dinosaur or light-up toothbrush, chances are they’ll be more inclined to want to brush their teeth. Baxter found her son gravitates towards fun toothbrushes and enjoys using toothpaste that tastes like bubblegum or fruit.
Lloyd breaks down the toothpaste your child should be using depending on their age: “Children under 3 years old should brush with a smear of toothpaste containing at least 1,000 parts per million (PPM) fluoride,” he says. “Children between 3 and 6 should brush at least twice daily with a pea-sized amount of toothpaste containing more than 1,000 PPM fluoride. Children 6 years and over should use a fluoride toothpaste containing between 1,350 and 1,500 PPM fluoride.”
Brush twice a day for two minutes
While most people know how to brush their teeth, time also matters: It’s recommended to brush twice a day for at least two minutes. Lloyd says there’s a science to how you brush during that time as well.
“Brush using a light pressure, moving the brush in small, light circles,” she says. “Make sure you cover all surfaces of the teeth and particularly the junction between the teeth and gums.”
Only offer water at bedtime
Tooth decay is prevalent among children and one way to help prevent it is by saying ‘no’ to milk and juice at night.
“Leaving bottles of milk or juice in a cot overnight is the leading cause of nursery or bottle tooth decay (tooth decay in children caused by poor dental hygiene from prolonged bottle use or drinking sugary liquids),” says Lloyd. “Juice contains sucrose and milk contains maltose. Both [are] forms of sugar [that] will sit on the teeth overnight, meaning water is the only safe drink.”
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