By Leigh-Ann Schuerman, D.M.D.

Q: “I know early dental care is important for children but how early should I start and when should I take my son to his first dental exam?” – Linda in Goodyear

A: Babies need a proper oral care regimen beginning at birth. Parents should provide oral care until a child is about six years old or old enough to take personal responsibility for the daily routine of brushing and flossing.
Start by cleaning the infant’s gums with a clean, damp cloth after each feeding. As soon as the first teeth come in, begin brushing them with a small, soft bristled toothbrush and water. However, check with a dentist before using toothpaste on a child before the age of two.
To avoid baby bottle tooth decay and teeth mal-alignment due to sucking, try to wean a child off the breast and bottle by age one and monitor excessive sucking of pacifiers, fingers and thumbs.    Never give a child a bottle of milk, juice or sweetened liquid at naptime or bedtime.
Usually by age six or earlier, children can learn to brush by themselves with proper instruction. Parents can help them brush their teeth at least two times per day. One suggestion is to let children brush their teeth first, and then parents can follow-up to ensure plaque is removed.

Also, it is important to keep primary teeth in place until they are naturally lost. Primary teeth are important because they:
• Help children chew properly to maintain good nutrition
• Aid in speech development
• Assist in saving space for permanent teeth

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends the first dental visit should be by the first birthday or within six months of the first tooth erupting. National studies now show preschool children get cavities. More than one in four children in the United States has had at least one cavity by the age of four. Unfortunately, many children get cavities before the age of two.
The age one dental visit focuses on early detection, prevention and education. It is usually short with very little treatment, and a child gets the opportunity to meet the dentist in a non-threatening environment. During the exam, the dentist will check teeth for decay, examine the bite, and look for any potential problems with gums, jaw, and oral tissue.
• Correct care for an infant’s mouth
• Proper use of fluoride
• Oral habits, including finger and thumb sucking
• Ways to prevent damaging face and teeth accidents
• Teething
• Link between diet and oral health

At the end of the first appointment, the dentist will discuss a follow-up schedule customized to your child’s needs. By following a few healthy oral care practices early on, a firm oral health foundation can be established your baby that will be important for years to come.

Leigh-Ann Schuerman, D.M.D., serves as a clinical instructor in both pediatric and general dentistry at the Midwestern University Dental Institute, where she supervises dental students in their third and fourth years of clinical training. Dr. Schuerman has practiced dentistry in the Phoenix area for 18 years. The Dental Institute utilizes the latest technology to provide high quality care for the public at affordable prices.