Taking a baby or a toddler to the dentist for the first time might not go as smoothly as you hope, especially if you have a baby or toddler who doesn’t like people going near his or her mouth! Here is our first dentist experience, and our second dentist experience with our toddler son (because the first one was a disaster). I'll share tips for how to avoid that disaster and make the first visit a success.
I write about when to take your baby to the dentist the first time, and recommendations from our dental hygienist about what to do to help our son brush his teeth better and prevent gagging while brushing his teeth.
I also updated this post to point out that it's OKAY if you can't get your baby or toddler to the dentist now for a routine check-up or for a first visit. As you'll see below, a lot of things that our dental hygienist told us are things we should be doing at home with our toddler to keep his teeth healthy. So keep reading, and make sure to do these things at home in the meantime!
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Choosing the right dentist for your baby
The best way to choose a dentist for your baby is to talk to other moms who have taken their babies and toddlers to the dentist and can tell you in detail about their experience. Otherwise, it’s just REALLY hard to tell whether you will have a good dentist for your first dentist visit.
Unless your baby or toddler have problems with their teeth, they don’t need the best dentist, but they need the best dentist who knows how to deal with little children. The dentist won’t be doing as much cleaning and scraping as they do during your dental visit, but a good dentist or hygienist make all the difference in how your child reacts to being in the dental chair.
Our first dentist visit attempt was to a dentist who was a good pediatrician dentist for older kids, but she had NO IDEA how to deal with a toddler who didn’t want to open his mouth (read about it below).
Our second visit was much more successful when we brought our son to a different hygienist. She had 3 kids of her own. She knew how to deal with toddlers (read about that below). Our son was also a little older than the generally recommended age for a first dental cisit.
If you don’t know anyone who’s taken their kids to a good dental office lately, see if there is a local Facebook group you can join, just to ask that question and see if other moms can chime in.
Otherwise, just call the dentist up and ask them what to expect from the first dentist visit, and how they work with babies or toddlers who might not want to open their mouths. If they are short with you on the phone, then that might be an indication that it might not be the best dental office for you. If they don’t really have a good answer for what they do if they get a stubborn kiddo, then maybe skip that dental provider.
When to take your baby to the dentist
I kept hearing lots of different recommendations for when to take your child to the dentist for the first time: as early as the first tooth (that would have been 7-8 months for us), at 1 year old, and 18 months when the child is a little older.
What the heck is the correct age??
Our adult dentist recommended bringing our son in around two years old if insurance covers it (or if the family can afford it otherwise), just to get him familiarized with the dentist office. At two years old a child is likely to remember his first dentist visit, so it is important to make it a positive experience. Otherwise a child might start kicking and screaming the next time you bring him or her to that office.
Our dentist also said it’s not absolutely necessary to bring a child that young. As long as we are brushing our son’s teeth twice a day, not having him snack on sugary foods all day, and don’t notice any problems with his teeth (such as cavities or discoloration), then we are already doing more than most parents do.
(By the way, that’s totally how I judge my parenting most days… am I doing better than the average person? Probably? Maybe? OK then, good enough, our son will turn out OK! So maybe you don’t want to follow any of the advice you see on this blog lol.)
Our dentist also said that if a parent sees any issues with a child’s teeth or have any concerns, then of course it is better to bring in the child before two years old.
Our son actually does have spots on some of his teeth, so we wanted to get him checked out.
Our first dentist visit
The first time we took our son to the dentist was a disaster. He was about 18 months old.
Our son hated brushing his teeth and hated anyone going near his mouth. I guess that’s part of the whole picky eating / oral aversion / sensory processing package.
But our insurance covered dental preventative care 100% so I figured, let’s give it a shot. Besides, he is much more stubborn with us at home than with teachers and other adults, so maybe a dentist will get him to open his mouth.
My son refused to open his mouth. It just flat out did not happen. We went home. The dental office was nice enough to not even bother charging out insurance for it.
We waited a year before we tried again.
Our first REAL dentist visit
This time we brought our son to our adult dental hygienist, who is a wonderful, nice lady with three kids of her own. Instead of expecting our son to just sit in the chair and open his mouth for her, she took a much more toddler-friendly approach.
She asked if our son wants to sit in the chair *or* sit on his dad’s lap. Then she shows him her toothbrush and gave him a toothbrush to play with to keep his hands busy. Then she asked him if he was ticklish, bringing the toothbrush to his cheek and giggling.
Our son totally fell for this whole thing. She kept asking if he is tickling, asking if he knows how to open his mouth, and just being playful with him the whole time.
Our son let her examine his mouth, and brush his teeth thoroughly!
She checked the spots on his teeth and said they were just discoloration or possible staining from iron, not decay. She said if we wanted to, she could clean them, but she would not recommend traumatizing our son for cosmetic reasons, since the spots were not doing any damage to his teeth. She said she would rather leave the spots, and in case we do have any tooth problems later that need to get fixed, our son won’t be terrified of going to the dentist. AGREED!
Screen time is OK!
I am usually all against screen time for toddlers (not in a judgy way, I just figure why let my son watch TV if I can keep them occupied with other educational activities?). I even have a blog post about how we cut out screen time during meals (our son used to RELY on having to watch TV in order to eat). But in situations like going to the dentist, I think it’s totally OK to put on some cartoons to let your child relax and be distracted for a little while, instead of being too focused on what the dentist is doing.
We always have a few episodes of toddler-friendly shows downloaded on our Netflix app, just in case.
Recommendations from a dentist
Our dental hygienist also gave us a few tips:
1) She said at 2.5 years old is a good time to start teaching our son to spit. This will help him brush his teeth better, with more toothpaste, and with fluoride toothpaste. Fluoride toothpaste is better for preventing tooth decay, but it needs to be spit out.
I would have NEVER thought to start teaching our son to spit. We barely just got into a routine where he doesn’t freak out and cry every time we try to brush his teeth. I was happy with that and didn't want to introduce anything new to the routine that could be stressful.
But sure enough, our son totally ready to learn how to spit! He understands the concept and can spit, but doesn’t understand that he shouldn’t swallow everything he has in his mouth first. So we are still working on that.
2) Start flossing! Again, I wouldn't have thought to start flossing a toddler's teeth. Turns out, it is recommended to floss as soon as their teeth touch. I gave it a shot. Turns out my son LOVES FLOSSING. We sometimes "bribe" him with flossing when we want him to brush his teeth and he refuses.
3) Our dental hygienist said that it is OK to brush our son’s teeth with a teeeeeeny tiny bit of adult toothpaste once in a while (yes, with fluoride), to help get rid of the stains on my son’s teeth. She also said that we can use a tiny tab of baking soda on the toothbrush if our son tolerates the taste – it will help scrub off the spots.
Can't make it to the dentist now?
So if you can't make your first dentist appointment because of what is going on right now - do not stress about it! If your toddler's teeth look fine, they are fine. Just keep brushing twice a day, try flossing, and see if your child is old enough to learn how to spit.
Reducing gagging while brushing a baby’s teeth
I mentioned on this blog several times that our son had a really sensitive gag reflex, which possibly was the cause of some of his eating issues.
He used to gag and throw up while eating all the time, and we started using a nuk brush to stop gagging during meal times. It totally helped.
But our son still gagged often while we brushed his teeth, especially when we were trying to brush the back of the teeth. And sometimes he would even throw up while brushing his teeth because he gagged too hard. It was awful.
We definitely were not brushing his teeth well enough while the gagging was still a problem.
So our dentist recommended using a small electric toothbrush like this one. It is just a small spinning circle, and not a long oval toothbrush head like a traditional toothbrush. There are lots of options on Amazon, and it might be harder to find a kids one like this in stores.
Tiny mouths and large toothbrushes are definitely not a good combination.
This little toothbrush was a total game changer for us. We were able to get to the back teeth and brush all around there without gagging.
As our son got a little older, we were able to switch to the regular electric toothbrush heads – those are still a bit smaller than most toddler toothbrushes! Here is the one we use:. Just keep in mind that it does have a stronger vibration than toddler toothbrushes, so not every toddler will like this.
Get some waterproof vinyl stickers (such as these) and decorate a plain electric adult toothbrush with your child’s favorite things. Voila! No need to buy Paw Patrol toothbrushes that are actually too big for toddlers's mouths and don’t work as well as adult tooth brushes.
So that’s that! I hope this helps your ease some of your worries about taking your baby to the dentist the first time. It’s OK if it doesn’t go well. Don’t force them to go through with a tooth exam or cleaning if they are getting upset.
It’s more important for your child to have a good time and be excited about going to the dentist than to get their baby teeth cleaned an extra time.
Have your taken your baby or toddler to the dentist? How did it go?? Leave me a comment below, I would LOVE to hear about your experience and see if you have any advice you can offer to other parents.
Looking for other helpful toddler and baby articles? Check these out:
- How to get a toddler to eat when they refuse
- What I say to my toddler to help him fall asleep on his own every night
- Feeding therapy for picky eating
- 52 Weeks of Sensory
- Using a nuk brush to stop gagging while eating
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