Regular dental exams for children are a critical part of preventive health care.
During a dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will clean your child's teeth and evaluate your child's risk of tooth decay. The exam might include applying a sealant or fluoride to reduce the risk of decay. A dental exam for children might also include dental X-rays or other diagnostic procedures.
The dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your child's diet and oral hygiene habits and demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics might include preventing oral injuries or, for adolescents, the health risks associated with tobacco, substance abuse and oral piercings.
Regular dental exams help protect your child's oral health. They give your child's dentist a chance to detect problems early, when they're most treatable, and provide tips for caring for your child's teeth.
When to have a dental exam
Various factors might determine how frequently your child needs to have a dental exam, including age, health and risk of tooth decay. Consider these general guidelines:
- Ages 6 months to 1 year. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the American Dental Association recommend scheduling a child's first dental exam after the first tooth erupts and no later than the first birthday. Also expect your baby's teeth and gums to be examined at well-baby checkups.
- Toddlers, school-age children and adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends scheduling regular dental checkups, with the most common interval being every six months. However, the dentist might recommend fewer or more-frequent visits depending on your child's risk factors for oral health problems.
Before scheduling your child's first dental exam, consider whether you'd be most comfortable visiting your family dentist or taking your child to a pediatric dentist — a dentist who provides specialized dental and oral care to children, from infants to teens. Pediatric dentists typically have child-friendly offices and equipment specially designed for children.
To help prepare your child for a dental exam:
- Carefully time your child's visit. Schedule dental exams for your child at a time of day when he or she is rested and most likely to cooperate.
- Be positive. When talking to your child about the dental exam, avoid using words such as "pain," "shot" or "hurt." Instead, tell your child that the dentist will use special tools to make sure your child's teeth are healthy. Remind your child that you visit the dentist, but don't mention any negative dental experiences you might have had.
- Listen to your child. Encourage your child to share worries about visiting the dentist or having a dental exam.
What happens during a dental exam for children might vary depending on the child's age and treatment needs.
Ages 6 months to 1 year
The dentist or hygienist might place your child on a table or exam chair or have you hold your child on your lap during the exam. Then the dentist or hygienist will likely:
- Evaluate your child's oral hygiene and overall health, drinking and eating habits, and risk of tooth decay
- Remove stains or deposits on your child's teeth by gently scrubbing with a wet toothbrush or wet cloth
- Demonstrate proper cleaning techniques
- Assess how much fluoride your child is getting through diet and use of oral hygiene products — and, if necessary, prescribe a fluoride supplement or apply a topical fluoride treatment to your child's teeth
- Look for sores or bumps on your child's tongue, inside the cheeks, and on the roof of the mouth
- Evaluate the impact of habits such as pacifier use and thumb sucking
Toddlers, school-age children and adolescents
During each regular checkup, the dentist or hygienist will continue to evaluate your child's oral hygiene and overall health, drinking and eating habits, and risk of tooth decay. Besides cleaning your child's teeth, the dentist or hygienist might:
- Take digital dental X-rays or, if necessary, do other diagnostic procedures
- Apply sealants — thin, protective plastic coatings — to permanent molars and other back teeth susceptible to decay
- Repair cavities or tooth defects
- Look for problems in the way your child's upper and lower teeth fit together
- Counsel your child about the impact of thumb sucking, jaw clenching or nail biting
- Recommend pre-orthodontic treatment, such as a special mouthpiece, or orthodontic treatment, such as braces, to straighten your child's teeth or adjust the bite
As your child gets older, dental exams might also include counseling about the oral health risks associated with:
- Drinking sugary beverages
- Chewing tobacco
- Eating disorders
- Oral piercings
- Not wearing a mouthguard during contact sports
The dentist or hygienist might also discuss the possible removal of your child's wisdom teeth (third molars) at the appropriate age, usually at age 16.
A dental X-ray allows the dentist to see detailed images of specific sections of your child's mouth to help diagnose problems not visible during the dental exam. X-rays aren't typically needed at every dental visit, and your dentist or hygienist will discuss with you the need for X-rays based on your child's age, oral health and risk of disease.
Radiation exposure from dental X-rays is low, especially with digital X-rays — but talk to the dentist if you're concerned.
After the exam, the dentist or hygienist will discuss your child's oral health, including your child's risk of tooth decay, other oral health concerns, and preventive measures you can take to improve and protect your child's oral health.
The dentist or hygienist will also recommend when to return for a follow-up visit — typically every six months. If your child is at high risk of tooth decay or has other oral health concerns, more-frequent checkups might be suggested.