By Nancy Gottesman

Let’s start with the big question: At what age should your child first see a dentist? Ask any number of parents and you’ll likely get an array of responses: “Younger than age 2, it makes no sense!” “Age 3, of course; most of their teeth are in!” “I took my son when he was 4 and he had no cavities!”

Children’s dental experts beg to differ, however. “The initial visit should be within six months of the eruption of the first tooth, usually around the child’s first birthday,” explains Jack E. Thomas, Jr., D.D.S., a pediatric dentist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “As soon as a tooth comes in, the bacteria in the mouth change and decay can begin.”

By the time they reach kindergarten, more than 40 percent of American children have tooth decay, which can be advanced even by age 3. Exams every six months will protect your toddler’s beautiful smile now, and help prevent the decay that can lead to malocclusion, the improper positioning of the teeth and jaw, which can affect your child’s future bite, gum tissue health, speech development and appearance.


Your dental “home”

“One benefit of an early visit is that it provides a dental home for your child,” says Brian S. Martin, D.M.D., chief of the division of pediatric dentistry at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It’s nice to know you have someone you can call at 9 p.m. on a Friday.”

Experts recommend that you seek out a pediatric dentist. Adults’ dentists haven’t been trained in kids’ issues, stresses Thomas. Pediatric dentists have two to three years of specialized training after dental school, and they limit their practice to kids. Plus, their offices boast colorful walls, animated movies and cool toys—dangling carrots that ease your child into the dental experience.

Who better to have on call in a crisis— such as when your 2-year-old takes a spill and bumps his front tooth? In that case, Martin recommends that you follow up with a dentist to make sure there has been no damage to the nerve or blood vessels. If the tooth is bleeding, but not chipped or loose, it’s likely that it’s only a gum injury, however it’s always best to make sure. (To find a pediatric dentist near you, visit the Web site of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.)


Toothy concerns

At the first visit, your dentist will check your little one’s teeth for “baby bottle tooth decay.” When liquid—formula, milk, juice, soda—builds up in the mouth, its natural or added sugars are changed to acid by oral bacteria, causing decay. The biggest culprit? The sleepy-time bottle. “Never put your child to bed with a bottle,” urges Thomas. “The sugar [from the liquids] just sits on the teeth.”

Pediatric dentists maintain that children should be transitioning away from bottles by age 12–14 months. So encourage your child to begin using a sippy cup, which will prevent liquid from collecting around the teeth, and fill it with good old H2O. If the bottle has been your antidote of choice for teething pain, try letting your toddler gnaw on a frozen bagel, Popsicle, cold compress or a teething toy that you keep in the freezer instead.

These chilled remedies may not offer your child quite the same psychological comfort that “baba” did, but there is a silver lining: Your child’s teething days are numbered. By age 3, most kids have their full complement of 20 teeth!


Brushing up

Baby teeth help form the path that permanent teeth will follow, so home care is as important as early visits to the dentist. An infant-size, soft-bristled toothbrush dipped in warm water should be used once a day at bedtime after your baby’s fi rst tooth erupts. When your child turns 2, it’s time to use toothpaste. With a pea-sized amount of fl uoridated toothpaste, gently brush your preschooler’s teeth in the morning and at night. “Kids [ages 2–4] lack the dexterity to brush their own teeth,” says Martin. Also be aware: “The toothbrush should be the last thing to go into your child’s mouth at night, not a cup of milk, not a bottle, not a snack,” he adds.

Taking care of teeth and gums when your child is young will lay the groundwork not just for his future dental health, but also for a lifetime of healthy habits.

Nancy Gottesman, a freelance writer who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., boasts that her 12-year-old son Robby actually likes going to the dentist.

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