Most Parents Don't Take Kids to the Dentist Early Enough & It's Bad News for Their Health


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There are so many rules and suggestions about when and how often kids should see certain doctors, it can be easy for some appointments to fall through the cracks. While most parents are well aware of how important it is for kids to have early, regular visits to the pediatrician, the rules around dental visits are a little murkier. According to a recent study, most parents are waiting way too long to take their kids to the dentist for the first time, and it signals bad things for our kids' teeth. 

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The C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan surveyed 790 parents of children aged zero to 5 years old. All parents were asked about what age they feel children should be taken to the dentist for the first time. Surprisingly, 48 percent of parents said that children should start going to the dentist at around 2 or 3. About 17 percent said kids should delay their visit until around 4, at least. But only 35 percent accurately said that parents should take their kids to the dentist by age 1. 

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The American Dental Associates and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that children be taken to the dentist for the first time around their first birthday. While it's obvious that some parents followed these recommendations, the vast majority have not. But experts say that has more to do with a lack of knowledge than bad parenting.

C.S. Mott Children's Hospital believes that these varying degrees of knowledge have a lot to do with how parents receive medical recommendations for their kids. The study found that less than half of parents surveyed were given advice about taking their kids to see a dentist by their pediatrician. Parents who didn't get advice from medical professionals tended to rely on suggestions from friends and family or drew on their own personal experience to determine when their kids should start seeing a dentist. 

"Our poll finds that when parents get clear guidance from their child's doctor or dentist, they understand the first dental visit should take place at an early age," said the study's coauthor Sarah Clark in an official press release. "Without such guidance, some parents turn to family or friends for advice. As recommendations change, they may be hearing outdated information and not getting their kids to the dentist early enough."


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Among parents who did receive recommendations from their child's doctor, the average number who knew the requirement for earlier dental visits was a bit higher. Six percent of parents still believed that dental visits can be held off until a kid is 4 years old. But 47 percent said kids should be taken around age 1 or younger.

The study also revealed that low-income parents, parents who depend on Medicaid, and parents who don't have dental coverage at all have a high risk of not being properly counseled by their children's medical care providers about the importance of early-childhood dental visits. "This is particularly problematic because low-income children have higher rates of early childhood tooth decay and would benefit from early dental care," said Clark. 

Clark says that lack of guidance from medical professionals often forces parents to make uninformed guesses about the state of their teeth. Twenty-five percent of polled parents said that they hadn't taken their kids to the dentist yet because their teeth "looked healthy." But Clark also pointed out that signs of decayed or damaged teeth may not be obvious to those of us who are not trained dentists. 

"Parents may not notice decay until there's discoloration, and by then the problem has likely become significant," she said. "Immediate dental treatment at the first sign of decay can prevent more significant dental problems down the road, which is why having regular dentist visits throughout early childhood is so important."

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Tooth decay is the most common chronic illness for children in the United States. With 47 percent of school-aged children having experienced decay to some degree, experts believe that starting kids off with a foundation of good dental hygiene can help combat this issue. Clark and her team are now encouraging pediatricians who serve poorer populations to take more time to educate parents about dental health for their children. They also want parents to stay as informed as possible. 

"Visiting the dentist at an early age is an essential part of children's health care," said Clark. "These visits are important for the detection and treatment of early childhood tooth decay and also a valuable opportunity to educate parents on key aspects of oral health."

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