Here’s a shocking statistic: Nearly half of kids ages 6 to 11 and more than half of kids ages 12 to 19 are affected by tooth decay, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). But there’s plenty you can do to prevent your child from becoming one of them. Most importantly, get your kid (and yourself!) to the dentist on a regular basis. When it comes to their dental care, take the time to research the best option for your family. Here’s how to decide whether a pediatric dentist or family dentist is right for your kids:
CONSIDER A PEDIATRIC DENTIST
Pediatric dentists, meaning the practice is limited to kids, receive two to three years of specialty training after dental school. They’re educated in the areas of child psychology and how to communicate and work with kids, especially those with developmental delays.
They’re trained to recognize signs of anxiety and get kids talking to ease them into a visit. A pediatric office may have spaces for a play area, video games and kid-themed rooms. “Pediatric dentists are also qualified in sedation and general anesthesia, which are typically done for kids who have high levels of anxiety or those requiring extensive dental treatment,” says Kevin Donly, DDS, president of the AAPD and professor and chair of the department of developmental dentistry at UT Health San Antonio.
CONSIDER A FAMILY DENTIST
Many family and general dentists also treat kids. The difference is they see all ages, so the office can become a dental home for the whole family. “Having a rapport with your dentist is important for parents and kids,” says Thomas Rossi, DMD, president of the New Jersey Dental Association and in practice at Roseland Dental Associates. “If you have a dentist you love and feel comfortable with, your child will feel more comfortable, too, because you’ve already established a rapport.” It also may be easier to coordinate the whole family’s dental care because you can schedule everyone’s checkups for the same day.
No matter if you choose a pediatric or family dentist, have your child seen sometime after the first tooth comes in, no later than his or her first birthday. “We want kids to establish a dental home for comprehensive ongoing care,” says Donly. “We want to get kids started now on preventive care.”
KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT
During the initial visit, the dentist will count teeth, check to see if teeth are developing on schedule and assess tooth decay risk. He or she will advise how often your child should be seen, usually every six months. Avoid too much discussion before the visit. “Parents sometimes make it seem like a big deal and say things like ‘don’t worry, you’re not getting a shot,’ then all the child hears is ‘getting a shot.’ Just say, ‘You’re going to the dentist like I do,’” says Rossi. “Kids will have better oral health for life if they feel comfortable and have a positive experience from the beginning.”
CHECK OUT THE OFFICE
Recommendations from family and friends can be helpful, but you may want to do some homework on your own, too. Some family dentists actually pursue continuing education with the AAPD to earn “affiliate” member status with the organization (aapd.org has a searchable database). When considering a family dentist, ask if the practice treats a lot of kids and what ages. During your first visit to any dentist, pay attention to how the dentist interacts with your child. Does your child seem to be at ease? Are you at ease? How does the rest of the staff interact with kids? “Like a lot of parenting, sometimes you have to go with your instincts,” says Donly.
ASK YOUR DENTIST WHEN IT’S TIME TO TRANSITION
Some kids who see a pediatric dentist transition to a family dentist around age 12, while others stay through high school. There’s no set recommendation, and each family decides together. Some teens want to move on to the family dentist when they hit a certain age, but others are perfectly happy staying with someone they’ve always known. There’s no right or wrong age, just what’s comfortable for your child, says Rossi.
—Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.