Your relationship with wellness starts the minute you see a plus sign. You’re likely to visit your doctor during pregnancy more times than you’ve been to the doctor in your entire adult life up until then. After you have the baby, the pattern continues for your little one. Those first few years of a child’s life are filled with constant wellness visits to the pediatrician. It often feels like you’ve just scheduled a checkup, and it’s already time for the next! At each visit, you talk with your pediatrician about developmental milestones and any problems or concerns you have about your child. You learn about everything from nutrition and discipline to fear of the dark. Your wellness visits are proactive and all geared toward making sure your little one is developing, thriving and happy — and that you are staying sane!
A pediatric dentist plays the very same role. As with your prenatal visits and your pediatrician visits, only rarely is kids’ dentistry about reacting. It’s about proactive maintenance and education about your child’s oral health. Pediatric dentistry is not really about “treatment” in those early years, says pediatric dentist Rhea Haugseth, DMD, of Post Oak Pediatric Dentistry in Marietta, Georgia, and president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “It’s really about educating the parent on what to do to keep your child in optimal oral health.” The idea that you only start taking your child to the dentist once they’re in school (or if there is something wrong) is misleading. And it’s likely to lead to problems down the road.
Benefits of Seeing the Pediatric Dentist
More than ever, dentists are integrative medicine specialists, with the teeth as just one avenue to focus on overall health. The earlier you can get that process started for your child, the better. Early visits (in the first three years of life) that establish a relationship with a children’s dentist have many benefits.
- It establishes a dental home. Early well visits to a pediatric dentist get your child comfortable with the process of seeing a dentist and having someone fiddle with their mouth. If something happens down the road (an issue with their teeth or a trauma), they already have an established place to go. It’s comfort for your child and peace of mind for you.
- You can avoid the first experience being traumatic. It’s really hard if in the very first visit, your toddler has a trauma and they are scared, frightened, bleeding and have a tooth knocked out. “That’s definitely more of a challenge,” Dr. Haugseth says. Of course, your child’s dentist will do everything possible to make your little one comfortable and calm fears, but the combination of trauma and a new environment/new person can set up lifelong fears about going to the dentist.
- It’s an environment engineered specifically for children. Not only does a pediatric dentist have specialized training (two to three more years than required for general dentistry) which makes them more tuned into behavioral quirks and kids’ psychology, the office is also set up for kids’ dentistry. The waiting rooms and treatment rooms are baby- and toddler-friendly (much the same way your pediatrician’s office is set up for little ones, whereas your primary care physician’s may not be).
- It lays the foundation for preventive care. Parents often question whether it’s necessary to see kids so little, when they only barely have teeth. “We do know that prevention works. In fact, dentistry is a great example of preventive techniques that work,” Dr. Haugseth says.
- Investing time now saves money down the road. Pediatric dentist costs vary greatly depending on part of the country you live in and what your dental insurance covers. But what doesn’t vary is the return on investment. Recent studies show that seeing a child by age one and teaching the parent about good nutrition and preventive care (brushing and flossing), and regularly assessing kids’ oral health wound up saving a great deal of money over the next four to five years of the child’s life because it prevents future fillings, which aren’t cheap, Dr. Haugseth says. It’s cost-effective medicine.
- You learn how to better take care of your child’s teeth. It’s not necessarily intuitive to figure out the best way to brush your wee one’s teeth (especially when they turn up their nose at the toothbrush). A visit to the pediatric dentist can train you how to best approach oral health for your child — both from a hands-on and a psychological perspective.
- You’ll get educated about behavioral habits that can lead to tooth decay. Much of those early visits to the pediatric dentist revolve around diet counseling: when sugary snacks and drinks are appropriate, and when (and how) they can add up to kids’ tooth decay if you don’t manage them properly. It’s not uncommon for children very young (two or three) to get cavities, but it always has to do with diet and how brushing/flossing are managed.
Ask your pediatrician for recommendations for a pediatric dentist in your area. You can also visit the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (www.aapd.org) and search for pediatric dentists there.