First things first. Let’s talk about your child’s first visit to the dentist. We can and should do better. A 2009 survey conducted for one of the major dental insurance companies found that the average age for kids’ first dental checkup was 2.6 years. The most authoritative experts, pediatric dentists, tell us this is way too late, with the optimum timing being before the first birthday or within six months of the first tooth erupting. Even more startling was the finding that about a third of the kids in the survey had never been to a dentist.
The most popular reasons given by parents for the delay or complete neglect of children’s first dental checkup were “too young” and “not enough teeth.” All things considered, it’s not unreasonable for parents to see things that way, but it is uninformed. Attitudes might change if everyone understood that newborn babies do have teeth. They generally have all 20 baby teeth, almost fully formed. We just can’t see them because they’re still in the babies’ jawbones. But they are there, and deserve our attention.
Baby (primary) teeth are important. Even though they aren’t meant to stick around for very long, they have critical functions to perform with lifelong impact on a person’s oral health, and all that goes with that in terms of social and personality development and general health. One of the challenges is presented by tooth decay, to which any tooth is exposed as soon as it first peeks out from inside the gums. Another critical mission of the baby teeth is guiding and shaping the development of the jaw, and the alignment of the permanent teeth that eventually replace them and fully populate the adult mouth.
Dental checkups are necessary because the dentist can see things that parents cannot, anticipate future developments, and intervene at the junctures when it’s most effective. Clinical exams and x-rays support the dentist’s training and experience, so office visits at the right frequency throughout childhood yield the best outcomes possible given the child’s genes and home care practices.
We come at last to the bottom line. How often should kids have dental checkups? The answer is that each child should have checkups on the schedule recommended by his or her pediatric dentist. It varies according to the child’s individual characteristics and accumulating history. A sound expectation for new parents, wondering what the future holds for their as-yet-unborn first child, is for six-month intervals between appointments.