Your tiny kid has cut their first tooth, and the word in the parent and carer’s group is that you should book their first dental visit. But is this really necessary? Is it worth taking your infant or toddler to the dentist when they can’t even sit still for a whole episode of Bluey? (Answer: yes.)
Going to the dentist is a developmental milestone. Think back to your own childhood. Maybe you didn’t see a dentist until you were four, five or older. But dentistry has changed. We know much more about oral health, the power of preventative care, and the benefits of ingraining healthy habits as early as possible.
If you’re considering taking your child for their first checkup but want more information about what happens during the appointment (and whether it’s worth the cost), we’ve got you covered. In this guide we’ll answer your first-trip-with-the-kid questions and share ideas to help you and your child prepare.
When should you take your child for their first dental visit?
Your child’s first checkup should happen when their first tooth appears, or by their first birthday, whichever comes first. (So says the Australian Dental Association.) This advice can be hard to fathom. Your small child is still sprouting teeth. They struggle to stay still for more than five minutes straight. Then there’s the very high risk there’ll be crying and wailing. Besides, you’ve succeeded in limiting their sugar intake. (Because who needs to deal with that crash?) The prospect of a dental exam seems preposterous.
Oral health therapists (OHTs) who commonly treat babies and young children, are across all of this. And they’re experts in finding fun and safe ways to manage wriggling, crying and child dental anxiety. They have to be skilled in this. Because the shocking truth is that in 2020-2021, 51% of the hospitalisations for dental decay in Queensland were among children aged 0-9 years. We can’t afford to delay early childhood dental care. And so we’ll do everything we can to make your child’s first trip to the dentist as smooth, calm and (dare we say it) as fun as possible.
Let’s be realistic. The first trip is about encouraging healthy habits
Before delving into what happens during your toddler’s first visit to the dentist, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Frankly, how much we get done during that first visit depends heavily on your child’s nature and any previous experiences of going to the dentist.
A child under the age of three will rarely open wide and let us do a full exam. With a little luck, three or four-year-olds will let us do a simple, light clean. Most often, your child’s first appointment simply introduces them to healthy oral care habits. It’s about adding ‘see the OHT’ to your child’s oral routine. Along with getting your child to hold a toothbrush and swish it around their mouth while you brush your teeth, this visit lays the foundations for a healthy relationship with tooth and gum care.
Let’s be realistic. How much we can practically expect to achieve during that first visit will depend heavily on the nature of your child and their experiences with OHTs before that date. The aim of your child’s first trip to the dentist is to lay the foundations for a healthy relationship with tooth and gum care.
The appointment: what to expect and what will the dentist do?
Aim to arrive 10-15 minutes early for your child’s first appointment. As their legal guardian, you’ll need to complete a new patient form and tell us about the child’s medical history.
Tip: If you have more than one child, we recommend getting the other kid looked after so you can focus all your energy on helping your (probably nervous) little one through their appointment.
The OHT, or dental assistant, may meet you both in reception. Chatting before going into the treatment room can help calm any nerves.
Once in the room, the OHT will invite your child to ‘go for a ride’ in the magical moving chair. If they’re big enough and seem fairly relaxed, they can sit on their own. But it’s okay if they’d rather sit on your knee.
Before the exam starts, the OHT (or dentist if the practice doesn’t have an OHT) will show your child some of the tools and equipment, such as mouth mirrors and the overhead light. They can touch and feel the rubber gloves, see how the chair moves and listen to the noise of the airflow machine. Letting your child explore this strange new environment can help them relax.
Tip: How you feel will affect how your child feels. Stay as calm, relaxed, and matter-of-fact about your dental visit as possible. We realise this can be difficult if you’ve had negative experiences with dentists. Maybe you can use this visit as an opportunity to overcome your own dental anxiety.
While your child’s being shown the treatment room, we’ll ask if you have any concerns about their teeth. For example, have you noticed any problems when your child eats or chews their food? How have they been during teething?
How the next part of the exam goes will depend on how cooperative your little one is feeling.
In an ideal situation
Your child will lie back in the chair, either on their own or lying on you. They’ll keep their mouth open long enough for the dentist to count their teeth, use a mouth mirror to check tooth and gum health, and give them a light polish.
When it doesn’t quite go to plan
If your child isn’t playing ball, the dentist will get them to smile as much as possible and encourage them to go “Aah” with a big open mouth. (Getting kids to show us their biggest “ROAR” usually does the trick.) Anything so we can get a couple of good looks at their teeth. If you’re happy to lead by example, the OHT can look at your teeth first. When your child sees how all this works, they’ll often want their turn next.
The final part of the appointment involves education. We’ll talk to you and your child about toothbrushing, how to clean teeth, why it’s important, and what more you can do to care for your child’s oral health. Finally, we offer your child a free toothbrush or sticker to celebrate completing their first dental visit.
How long will the appointment last?
A child’s first dental visit generally takes 20 minutes. Sometimes less, but rarely more. Essentially, the appointment length depends on how cooperative the infant or child is. The important thing is not to push it. We know kids don’t like to sit still in a strange environment for too long, and we don’t want to create any negative associations.
A child’s first dental visit generally takes 20-minutes.
Making a second appointment
Your child’s second checkup depends on how well the exam went and whether there are any potential problems.
Generally, we try to see infants and children every six months. There are three main reasons for this.
- Children’s mouths change quickly. As you know, there’s a lot of growth and development, so the shape of their mouth and tooth alignment changes faster than an adult’s.
- Seeing a dentist every six months helps build familiarity. Even six months is a very long time in toddler land, and it’s easy for a child to forget. We want dental check-ups to become a regular, expected part of growing up.
- Children are prone to tooth decay. Good cleaning habits aren’t well established at such a young age, making it easier for tooth decay and gum disease to develop. Seeing your child twice a year lets us catch these challenges early and advise you on overcoming them.
At the end of the appointment, your OHT will let you know when they want to see your child again. Reception staff can book you in so you don’t have to think about it for another few months.
Preparing your kid for their first checkup
Dental practices are full of equipment, noises and smells that will be completely new (and probably a bit weird) for your child. Besides that, there are big people dressed in uniform and wearing masks. Children often feel anxious. They’ll turn to you for reassurance.
Ease their anxiety by doing some of these eight things before their appointment.
Talk about going to the dentist
Explain what a dentist and OHT do—they like to look at teeth. Tell them that getting your teeth checked is part of growing up. You could even discuss your own experiences. Hopefully, they’re positive ones. If not, don’t lie to your child but try not to pass on your anxiety or fear. Stick to the facts, or ask other family members and friends to talk about their trips to the dentist.
Let them sit in on appointments
If you, your partner, or the child’s older sibling have an appointment ahead of your child’s first checkup, let your little one sit in with you. Being a curious bystander will help them get used to the sounds and smells, and they’ll be able to see what goes on.
Roleplaying games help littlies understand the world around them. Gather a few of your child’s favourite dolls and soft toys, sit them in a chair and pretend to be dentists. You might even use props. A teaspoon works well as a mouth mirror. A pair of sunglasses as the protective glasses. A reusable metal straw as the airflow tube. And thanks to recent world events, we’re sure you can dig a mask out from somewhere.
Look at each other’s teeth
Show your child how to open wide and say “ahh,” then take turns looking at each other’s teeth. You might try counting their teeth or saying, “I can see your big back teeth,” “Look at those sharp front teeth for biting,” and name parts of their mouth such as their lips, tongue, and the roof.
Giving your child an age-appropriate toothbrush is a great way to encourage cleaning. See if they’ll let you move the brush around their mouth. Don’t stress if this doesn’t happen. It’s best not to force the issue with an infant or headstrong toddler. Instead, just aim to have them get the toothbrush in their mouth at least twice a day and, if they’re old enough, pop a bit of toothpaste on there.
Watch videos and shows about the dentist
Load up a YouTube video or two of people visiting the dentist and let your child watch. Search out episodes of popular kid’s TV shows in which the characters go to the dentist. (Yes, even Peppa Pig and Finny the Shark go to the dentist.)
Tip: If you’re not into your kid being in front of a screen, there are lots of books about teeth and going to the dentist, too.
Visit the practice
It’s sometimes possible to arrange a short tour of the dental practice. A receptionist or dental assistant may be able to show you and your child around, pointing out where your child will find toys and books while they wait and what a treatment room looks like.
Show them pictures of their dentist
When you make the appointment, get the name of the OHT they’ll see. Then, assuming the practice has a website, see if there’s a photo of the practitioner. Meeting a face they recognise can help settle those little nerves.
Your child may not fully understand everything you do to prepare them for their first dental exam. But hopefully some of these steps will help to smooth the experience.
How much does a child’s dental appointment cost in Australia?
The cost of your child’s dental visit will depend on the fees charged by the practice. Factors that influence price include:
- your location
- appointment length
- the dentist’s experience
- complexity of treatment needed.
Generally, the cost of an infant checkup (under 5 years) is less than $100. It can be slightly more for older children.
The cost of dental treatment in Australia can be a barrier, especially when it comes to taking the smallest members of your household. A hundred bucks for someone to potentially assess a smile seems a lot. But spotting and treating problems early can be an investment in avoiding more costly visits later.
Accessing the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (CDBS)
Dental care isn’t covered by Medicare. Yet. But there is some financial support for families wanting to ensure their child sees a dentist.
The CDBS is for children under 18 years and covers up to $1,052 worth of dental treatment over two years. To be eligible, the child must:
- be under 18 years of age,
- be entitled to Medicare, and
- the parent or child receives a government payment that makes them eligible. Payments include Family Tax Benefit Part A, Parenting Payment, or Double Orphan Pension payments.
If these criteria are met, you may be able to get free child dental care. Learn more about accessing CDBS.
Caring for your little one’s chompers
Taking your small person to the dentist when they’ve just cut their first or second tooth may seem very soon. But it’s never too early to start instilling good oral hygiene practices, including seeing the dentist.
If you’re in the Yeppoon and Rockhampton area and are looking for a family dentist who cares for teeth big and small, we can help. Call us on (07) 3130 0297 or request an appointment online.
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