Regular dental exams are an important part of preventive health care. During a dental exam for children, the dentist or hygienist will clean your child's teeth and evaluate your child's risk of tooth decay. A dental exam for children might include application of various protective measures — such as sealants or fluoride treatments — to reduce the risk of decay. A dental exam for children might also include dental X-rays or other diagnostic procedures.
During a dental exam for children, the dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your child's diet and oral hygiene habits and demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics for discussion during a dental exam for children might include preventing oral injuries or, for adolescents, the health risks associated with tobacco, substance abuse and oral piercings.
Why it's done
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 dental checkups every six months. The dentist might recommend more-frequent visits if your child is at high risk of tooth decay or has other dental or oral health concerns.
How you prepare
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 you can expect
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 mouth guard during contact sports
The dentist or hygienist might also discuss the possible removal of your child's wisdom teeth (third molars).
A dental X-ray allows the dentist to see detailed images of specific sections of your child's mouth. Traditional X-ray film is developed in a darkroom, but a newer technique allows X-ray images to be sent to a computer and viewed on a screen. 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.
- Periapical. This type of X-ray allows the dentist to see the entire tooth and the surrounding bone.
- 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.
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 tray is removed and used to create a dental cast or replica of your child's mouth.
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.