Lack of Guidance May Delay a Child’s First Dental Visit

Dentistry Today


Without the guidance of a doctor or a dentist, some parents don’t follow the national recommendations for early dental care for their children, according to the CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

For example, one in six parents who did not receive advice from a healthcare provider believed children don’t need to see a dentist until they are 4 years old or older. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the ADA both recommend dental visits beginning once baby teeth emerge around the baby’s first birthday.

“Visiting the dentist at an early age is an essential part of children’s healthcare. 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,” said Mott poll co-director Sarah Clark.

“Our poll finds that when parents get clear guidance from their child’s doctor or dentist, they understand the first dental visit should take place at an early age. Without such guidance, some parents turn to family or friends for advice. As recommendations change, they may be hearing outdated information and not getting their kids to the dentist early enough,” said Clark.

The nationally representative poll is based on responses from 790 parents with at least one child under the age of 5 years. More than half of those polled did not receive guidance from their child’s doctor or dentist about when to start dental visits. Among the parents who were not prompted by a doctor or dentist, only 35% believed dentist visits should start when children are a year old or younger as recommended.

Also, 60% reported that their child has had a dental visit, with 79% believing the visit was worthwhile. Among the 40% whose child has not had a dental visit, reasons why included the belief that the child wasn’t old enough (42%), the belief that the child’s teeth were healthy (25%), and the belief that the child would be scared of the dentist (15%).

Experts say that starting dental visits early helps set children up for healthy oral hygiene, with parents learning about correct brushing techniques, the importance of limiting sugary drinks, and the need to avoid putting children to bed with a bottle.

Also, early childhood caries may be detected at young ages, so decay can be treated to prevent more serious problems. In young children with healthy teeth, dentists may apply fluoride varnish to prevent future decay. And while a quarter of parents said their child’s teeth were healthy, Clark noted that it’s unlikely that they could 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.”

Another factor that may delay dental care is that healthcare recommendations for early childhood are often focused on well-child visits with medical providers, Clark said.

“Parents hear clear guidelines on when they should begin well-child visits for their child’s health and often schedule the first visit before they even bring their baby home from the hospital. Doctors typically prompt parents to stick to a standard schedule for immunizations and other preventive care,” Clark said.

“Parents get much less guidance, however, on when to start taking their child to the dentist, with less than half saying they have received professional advice. This lack of guidance may mean many parents delay the start of dental visits past the recommended age,” Clark said.

Parents with higher income and education and those with private dental insurance were more likely to report that a doctor or dentist provided guidance on when to start dental visits.

“Our poll suggests that families who are low-income, less educated, and on Medicaid are less likely to receive professional guidance on dental care. This is particularly problematic because low-income children have higher rates of early childhood tooth decay and would benefit from early dental care,” Clark said. 

“Providers who care for at-risk populations should dedicate time to focus on the importance of dental visits. Parents should also ask their child’s doctor or their own dentist about when to start dentist visits and how to keep their child’s teeth healthy,” Clark said.

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