Years ago when I worked in a human resources employee benefits department, I was always amazed by the number of employees who added their newborn babies to their dental insurance plans. Why would anyone do such a thing, I thought? A newborn baby doesn't even have teeth yet! Turns out those employees were doing the right thing. In case of an emergency or an accident, a baby's mouth could need to be looked at by a dentist-- teeth or no teeth.
Recently, when I took my dentist-fearing 5 year old for her semi- annual checkup, I pointed to my 2 year old son and asked the hygienist when she would recommend that I bring him in. I had been planning to wait until he turned three, as I did with my daughter. The hygienist informed me that they recommend seeing a child for his or her first dental exam once the child gets any teeth-- as in, before the age of one year. I was dumbfounded. I know that my two year old will barely open his mouth and say "Ah" on command--especially if he knows someone is going to be poking and prodding around with his teeth. Needless to say, however, after checking with the dental hygienist, I scheduled my son's first dental appointment. He is already saying that he doesn't want to go.
You can start your baby off with good dental hygiene by establishing good brushing habits early on. At first, when baby doesn't have any teeth, be sure to clean his or her gums after eating. Most dentists recommend wiping the gums clean with a wet cloth. Once a few teeth do come in, its time to get a soft bristle brush and brush baby's teeth. Remember, very young children who do not yet know how to spit should not use fluoridated toothpaste. Instead, purchase one of the many brands of non-fluoridated toothpastes on the market, Like Tom's of Maine Grape flavored Toothpaste or Orajel Toddler Training Toothpaste. You can switch to a kid-friendly fluoride toothpaste once your child knows how to spit out the toothpaste.
To prepare your baby or toddler for his or her first visit to the dentist, consider watching a DVD or video about the subject-- just about every children's television series also has a dental episode (my daughter's favorite episode about the dentist is on PBS' "Calliou"). Another good idea is to bring your child to one of your dentist appointments and let him or her sit on your lap while the dentist looks at your teeth (of course, if you're getting a filling that day, leave baby home).
One of my favorite ways to prepare babies and toddlers for any event is to read a story on the subject. There are many books available about visiting the dentist. A few of my favorites are "Calliou at the Dentist" by Johanne Mercer, "My Dentist My Friend" by P.K. Hallinan and "Just Going to the Dentist" by Mercer Mayer.
If you have not yet chosen a dentist for your child, there are a few things to consider. Is your own dental practice a kid-friendly place? Even if you love your dentist, ask yourself what kind of demeanor do the dental hygienists at the practice have (remember, the hygienist does most of the cleaning work and will spend way more time with your child than the actual dentist will).
In my own experience, the hygienists at my dental practice did not know how to handle my uncooperative daughter at her first visit. My daughter was crying hysterically, mostly over how "scary" everything looked and sounded. The frustrated hygienist told me to try bringing her back again in six months. I did try again in six months--- with a pediatric dentist. What a difference! The trained child-friendly hygienists practically had my daughter hypnotized with her soothing, calming voice. She had my daughter help count her own teeth and let her choose a prize at the end of the visit. The coolest thing? In my daughter's goodie bag, they included an egg timer that she still uses to "time" herself when she brushes her teeth-- she knows to keep brushing until the sand in the timer runs out.
Whenever you decide to take your baby or toddler to the dentist, remember that the first time will be the most difficult. Once your child realizes that it isn't going to hurt, he or she will be better prepared for the next visit-- and may even look forward to it.