Most parents may not realize that about the time the first little teeth start sprouting up through their infants’ gums is the best time to start seeing a dentist.

Think it’s too early? Temple University pediatric dentist Mark Helpin says taking your toddler to see the dentist puts him or her on the path to overall good health.

Early start

“A child should be first seen by a dentist by 12 months of age or within six months of the time that the first tooth emerges into the mouth,” said Helpin, who is acting chair of pediatric dentistry in Temple’s Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry.

Helpin said at such at early age, the dentist’s focus will be more on prevention than treatment, including oral hygiene instructions such as how to clean the whole mouth, diet, fluoride, non-nutritional habits such as thumb sucking and injury prevention.

“We’re trying to follow the medical model of care for children by preventing disease from occurring before it begins,” he said. “What we want is to establish a ‘dental home’ for the child, as well as their parents, where they can go to get comprehensive and continuous oral health care.”

Thorough exam

According to Helpin, during the initial visit, the dentist should thoroughly exam the child’s teeth and gums, the roof and floor of the mouth and the shape of the developing jaws.

He or she should also discuss proper diet and nutrition and show the parent or guardian how to brush at home. The dentist may also clean the child’s teeth -- even if it’s only one or two to start.

Helpin said that although some might think preventive care is less important for baby teeth since they eventually fall out, keeping a young child’s teeth and mouth clean is imperative in order to control cavity-causing bacteria.

“Cavities are an infectious disease and are the most common, chronic disease during childhood,” he said. “It is five times more prevalent in children than asthma. And it is entirely preventable if we begin a program of oral health care early on.”

Need for treatment 

Left untreated, Helpin says cavities can cause an infection that can make a child ill. Cavities can also affect the development of permanent teeth if left untreated.

“The permanent tooth is sitting under the primary tooth and if it is exposed to this infection, it can become malformed,” he said. “In addition, the baby teeth guide the permanent teeth to where they should go in the mouth.”

Good development in permanent teeth is important for aesthetics, chewing and biting and speech development.

Helpin said if a primary tooth needs to be extracted due to infection caused by an untreated cavity, the permanent tooth may need assistance from a dentist in finding its proper location in the mouth.

“It’s best to keep babies, infants, toddlers and children healthy, and that includes good oral health that starts with an early visit to the dentist,” he said.