Regular dental exams help protect your child's oral health. Dental exams give your child's dentist a chance to provide tips on caring for your child's teeth, as well as detect any problems early — when they're most treatable.
When to have a dental exam
Various factors might determine how frequently your child needs to have a dental exam, including his or her 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 his or her 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 well-rested and most likely to be cooperative.
- Be positive. When talking to your child about his or her dental exam, avoid using words such as "pain" 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, too — but don't talk about any negative dental experiences you might have had.
- Listen to your child. Encourage your child to share any fears he or she might have 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 have you hold your child on your lap to conduct the exam. Then the dentist or hygienist will likely:
- Evaluate your child's oral hygiene and overall health, drinking and eating habits, and his or her risk of tooth decay
- Remove any stains or deposits on your child's teeth by gently scrubbing with a wet toothbrush
- Demonstrate proper cleaning techniques
- Assess how much fluoride your child is getting through his or her 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 his or her risk of tooth decay. In addition to cleaning your child's teeth, the dentist or hygienist might:
- Take 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 any cavities or tooth defects
- Look for any 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 orthodontics, such as braces, to straighten your child's teeth or adjust your child's 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.
A dental X-ray (radiograph) allows the dentist to see detailed images of specific sections of your child's mouth. Various types of oral X-rays are available, including:
- Bitewing. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the crowns of the upper and lower teeth. During a bitewing X-ray, your child will bite down on the X-ray film holder while the X-ray images are being taken. This view can often reveal decay between teeth that can't been seen during an oral exam.
- Periapical. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the entire tooth and the surrounding bone. This view allows for the best assessment of root development.
- Occlusal. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the way the upper teeth and corresponding lower teeth fit together when the jaw is closed.
- Panoramic. This type of X-ray gives the dentist a broad view of the entire mouth. This view is often used for a comprehensive assessment of tooth and jaw development. It can also help determine the need for orthodontics.
- Cone beam computerized tomography. This type of X-ray also is used to assess tooth and jaw development. Unlike the other radiographs, it provides a 3-D view so that the dentist can better gauge space and development.
X-rays aren't typically needed at every dental visit. Radiation exposure from dental X-rays is low — but talk to the dentist if you're concerned about the radiation exposure.
In some cases, the dentist might recommend making a dental impression to produce a replica of your child's teeth and oral tissue. The dentist or hygienist will fill a horseshoe-shaped tray with a soft, gelatin-like material and place it over your child's upper and then lower teeth. After a few minutes, the trayis removed and used to create a dental cast of your child's mouth.
A dental cast can be used to study and document the development of jaws and tooth eruption progress. The dentist might use a dental cast and radiographs to assess potential space for the adequate location of a child's permanent teeth.
After your child's dental exam, the dentist or hygienist will discuss your child's oral health, including your child's risk of tooth decay, any 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 the best time 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, the dentist or hygienist might recommend more-frequent checkups.