Establishing good dental hygiene for children begins long before they have all of their teeth. Children should begin seeing a dentist when they get their first tooth, or by their first birthday, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Visiting a dentist within the first year of life establishes a “dental home,” which is a continuous relationship between the dentist, patient, parents and other caregivers that allows for comprehensive, accessible, coordinated and family-centered care, according to the AAPD. Beginning this relationship before a child is 1 year old allows the dentist to guide caregivers through preventive care opportunities that can reduce the risk of dental and oral diseases.
Most dentists attend a four-year dental school, where they learn about all aspects of dentistry, including general pediatric care. Pediatric dentists complete two to three years of additional training in working with children. According to Elizabeth I. Katz, DMD, a board certified pediatric dentist in Oro Valley, the additional training includes cavity prevention, behavior guidance, orofacial growth and development, sedation dentistry, care for patients with special medical needs and other age-related issues. One of the main focuses of pediatric dentistry is prevention, says Katz. “Seeing a child before the age of 1 allows pediatric dentists to provide education to the caregiver, in order to prevent oral health issues. If caregivers are taught while the child is young, potentially there will be fewer issues throughout the life of the child.”
Having an ongoing relationship with a patient allows a pediatric dentist to identify issues that parents may not recognize during different life stages. In infants and toddlers, most appointments focus on education for parents. As children grow older, the dentist may be able to spot signs of peer-pressure issues, such as smoking and bulimia. Pediatric dentists are also keenly aware of trends in youth sports and activities that may cause dental trauma. “Typically, I see sports-related dental trauma from baseball, cycling, soccer, and other active sports, but I am seeing a rise in trampoline-related dental injuries,” says Katz, a diplomate at the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry.
Working with patients with special medical needs is central to pediatric dentistry. Many patients with special medical needs have anxiety, behavioral and/or developmental concerns and other issues that require specialized care. Pediatric dentists are trained to adapt to the needs of each patient. “I have play appointments for my special needs patients, just to meet them,” says Katz. “I want to build comfort and trust with the child. Appointments can progress from coming into the office, then sitting in the chair at the next visit, and allowing a toothbrush in their mouth. There can be many steps that build upon each other.”
The AAPD recommends that children see a dentist every six months. Tooth decay is the most prevalent chronic infectious disease among children, affecting 42 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 11. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-quarter of children between the ages of 2 and 5 suffer from tooth decay. Early detection and the establishment of a “dental home” with a pediatric dentist can help children avoid this pain and continue to smile.
Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.