Many of today’s adults remember their earliest dental experiences as unpleasant visits to a sterile office where, more often than not, a cavity or two was detected. Follow-up visits to get the dreaded fillings were harrowing for many children and left them with silver amalgam-studded teeth.

    Today’s dental environment for children is different. Dentists who specialize in pediatric services or welcome both children and adult patients have made the clinical surroundings much more inviting with music, colorful decor, ceiling art or mobiles to enjoy when tilted back in the dental chair, and even television programs to help distract and relax patients.

    While creating a pleasing environment is helpful, introducing children to dental care at an early age is important to helping them develop a healthy attitude about regular dental check-ups and follow-up care, says Dr. Andrew Wolken of Wolken Family Dentistry. “We are truly stressing that parents bring their children to dental offices at very early ages, even as early as age 2, so they can become comfortable with the surroundings,” he says.

    “If children arrive at age 4 or 5 and already have decay, then their first experience in the dental office can be more challenging, especially if the decay is more advanced,” he continues. “By bringing a patient to the office at a younger age, we can gain a child’s trust by working toward smaller goals.”

    Wolken notes that even a brief visual dental exam of a toddler allows the child to begin associating the dentist with positive experiences, making subsequent check-ups and cleanings less stressful. These early visits also pave the way for a lifetime of good dental hygiene through education about proper brushing, foods and drinks that can cause decay, and how poor oral habits like thumb-sucking can lead to unwanted tooth positions.

    Parents who bring their toddlers and young children to the dentist’s office also benefit from specific information needed to help encourage healthy teeth. “Many parents are not aware of the devastating effects poor diet can have on the oral cavity,” Wolken says. “Drinks, such as soda, sports drinks and juices, can cause tooth decay very quickly. Parents also may need to be counseled on how to properly brush their child’s teeth. Most children cannot brush their own teeth properly, and parents need to be told to intervene.”

    Dental techniques and materials also have evolved in recent years, improving pediatric dental care. For instance, sealants that coat teeth help reduce the risk of cavities, and new glass ionomers, enamel-colored materials that bond chemically to teeth and release fluoride, are becoming more common as an alternative to traditional amalgam for restorations.

    As younger children are seen for initial dental visits, the age at which kids need orthodontic screenings and care is also decreasing. “It is our strong belief that children need to be seen between 5 to 7 years of age to detect the presence of any skeletal or bone problems, as these are best treated at their age using growth modification appliances,” explains Dr. Mazyar Moshiri of Moshiri Orthodontics.

    For instance, a child who has a crossbite, in which the top back teeth are inside the bottom back teeth when the patient bites down, due to thumb-sucking or airway problems, should be treated early with orthopedic expansion appliances, Moshiri says. In some cases, the orthodontic treatment should coincide with medical care to help eliminate problems, such as enlarged tonsils, that result in breathing problems.

    “The reason for treating at this age is because bones at the roof of the mouth are not completely fused and can be gently widened in order to correct the upper jaw width,” he says. Children with underbites are treated similarly in order to pull the upper jaw forward, potentially avoiding the need for future surgical correction.

    While these early interventions are important, Moshiri recommends postponing actual braces until the complete eruption of all permanent teeth at about age 12 in order to minimize the length of time braces are needed, thus decreasing risk of hygiene issues and cavities.

    Healthy teeth can’t wait. Start early, and your children can enjoy a lifetime of beautiful smiles.