PhotoA new poll finds that many parents who don’t receive proper professional guidance are less likely to take their children to the dentist early enough.

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends regular dental appointments starting at around age one after baby teeth have erupted, many parents wait until their children are much older to schedule their first dental visit.

The poll of 790 parents found that one in six parents who didn’t receive advice from a health care provider believed children shouldn’t visit a dentist until age 4 or older.

Dentist visits should start at early age

Sarah Clark, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, said the poll showed that parents who received clear guidance from their child’s doctor or dentist understood that the first dental visit should take place at an early age. However, more than half of parents did not receive guidance from a health care professional on when to start dental visits.

Just 35 percent of parents who didn’t receive guidance from a doctor or dentist knew that dentist visits should start when children are a year old or younger.

“Visiting the dentist at an early age is an essential part of children’s health care. These visits are important for the detection and treatment of early childhood tooth decay and also a valuable opportunity to educate parents on key aspects of oral health,” Clark said.

Possibly heeding outdated advice

The poll found that without guidance from a health care provider, some parents asked friends or family for advice. But as recommendations change, parents “may be hearing outdated information and not getting their kids to the dentist early enough,” Clark said.

Additional findings from the poll revealed that 60 percent of parents said their child had seen a dentist, and 79 percent of those parents believed the dentist visit was worthwhile.

Among the 40 percent of parents who had not yet taken their child to see a dentist, common reasons for the delay included: the child is not old enough (42 percent); the child's teeth are healthy (25 percent); and the child would be afraid of the dentist (15 percent).

Importance of early dentist visits

Experts say taking kids to the dentist early on in life helps set them up for healthy oral hygiene as they grow.

These early visits provide important information to both parents and children about correct brushing techniques, the importance of limiting sugary drinks, and why putting children to bed with a bottle isn’t recommended.

Early dentist visits can also help spot common oral problems that can follow toddlers and children as they get older, possibly leading to major dental procedures down the line.

Dental decay in baby teeth can be spotted and addressed early, but Clark says it’s unlikely that most parents can detect early tooth decay.

“Parents may not notice decay until there’s discoloration, and by then the problem has likely become significant,” Clark said. “Immediate dental treatment at the first sign of decay can prevent more significant dental problems down the road, which is why having regular dentist visits throughout early childhood is so important.”

Early dentist visits can also be beneficial to children with healthy teeth. In addition to educating kids on healthy oral hygiene habits, dentists can apply fluoride varnish to help prevent future decay.

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