Providing a positive first dental experience for a child can be a challenge. Many factors should be evaluated to help the parent determine the appropriate time for a dental appointment. Home dental care should begin with the eruption of the first baby tooth. Baby teeth should be kept clean by wiping them with gauze or a clean cloth. As the child grows older, a soft-bristled toothbrush can be used to remove accumulated food debris. When toddler age approaches, my children liked to suck and to chew on a toothbrush, which helps to provide relief in a mouth with newer erupting teeth. Although it often was a struggle to keep the child from running around the house with a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, he quickly learned to like the feel of a toothbrush and the relief that it provided. Providing a positive role model by allowing your child to watch you brush your teeth gives him another example to follow. The benefits of working early with your child's oral care is that eventually, he will get used to your help and will allow you to help him brush his teeth as he grows older.
A good rule of thumb to determine when your child's first real dental appointment should be is when he is willing to allow you to brush his teeth without sucking or pulling away from the toothbrush. If he is willing to allow you to look into his mouth, there is a good chance he will allow the dentist to do the same. For most children, successful dental appointments begin between the ages of two and a half to three years old. I always advocate for the first visit to be more of a "chair ride." No performance expectations should be set for this first visit. He should be allowed to experience the appointment with no stress and with just the opportunity to have his new "big kid" adventure.
The chair ride procedure followed at our office allows the child to get into the dental chair on his own, or if he is uncomfortable doing this, then he can sit on the parent's lap while the parent is in the dental chair. We talk about his teeth and how important it is for him and his parent to help keep his teeth clean. If he can open his mouth like a tiger or alligator, then we ask him to help the dental assistant or dentist to count his teeth to make sure that the teeth are all present. A successful visit occurs when he feels relaxed and comfortable and that nothing "scary" is going to happen. Toward the end of the visit, the child is given a toothbrush, and it is explained how he can help keep his teeth clean. After the appointment, the child is free to get a prize out of the toy basket. If everything is successful, in six months, the child should return for another visit. Hopefully, the next visit will progress into cleaning and exam. If the child is too anxious or unwilling to progress to a cleaning and exam procedure, then another chair ride will occur at this visit. In three to four months, the child should return to the dental office to see if he will allow the next visit to progress to cleaning and exam.
As a child matures and becomes familiar with the dental routine and experience, he will become more trusting and willing to participate. Parents should not feel stressed or anxious if the child is slow to embrace the dental visits. With time each visit typically progresses to a successful outcome until, eventually, the child is excited to come to the dental office. Patience and consistency are the keys. Building trust and positive experiences with the child will eventually pay off in positive feelings toward dental care. The more relaxed the parent is about the appointment, the more the child will feed off that energy and will allow the natural progression toward dental success.