I learned many things during my first year as a parent, one of which was when to start brushing my son’s teeth and when to take him to his first dentist visit. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends a visit to the dentist when the first tooth appears, or no later than your child’s first birthday.

One of the reasons  I decided to take my son to the dentist was because I noticed a yellow stain on his front teeth. I explained my concern to my friend Dinorah who is a dentist and she explained to me that it’s important to take him to the dentist because this can lead to tooth decay. To be honest, I got scared, so I decided to make an appointment and take him.

Unfortunately, tooth decay in very young children is far more common than you might think. According to the most recent data from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, approximately 28% of American children between the ages of 2 and 5 have cavities.

His first visit was when he was 19 months old, so he was already overdue for a check-up. Showing up to a strange, sterile place like a dentist’s office with loud, scary noises and “a big person” putting their hands in your mouth is definitely a scary thing for children. This is why it’s important to prepare your child at a young age. Establishing a few simple habits before your toddler’s first dental appointment could be your best bet for an easier first time in the dentist’s chair.

first dentist appointment

Levi scheduling his next visit in six months.

Thankfully, my son’s first visit went really well. They sat me in the chair with him, he opened his mouth when the dentist asked and he wasn’t as scared. When I was younger, I really disliked the dentist because they would strap me down, which made my experience even worse. I made sure to do my research when it came down to this. I did not want that experience for my son.

Upon discussing my concerns with his dentist about the yellow stain, he said it was normal and nothing to worry about. As a parent, that was a relief. They did recommend that I keep brushing his teeth twice a day and keep coming back every six months for check-ups.

Here are five easy ways first-time parents can prepare their toddler for the first dental visit:

Start brushing early

In order to help your toddler become more independent, it’s important to get him or her into a routine as he or she grows. It can be difficult to get them into a normal routine like nap times or bedtime, let alone a dental routine. 

Levi’s dental journey started when he was an infant. My partner and I would clean his gums regularly with a soft cloth. Around six months old, after all his teeth were coming in, we began brushing his teeth with non-fluoridated toothpaste. 

When children are taught to brush their teeth at a young age, their daily routine and their first visit to the dentist will be easier. Just like adults, children should brush their teeth twice daily for two to three minutes, ideally early in the morning and before going to bed.

Another thing you can do is have a nighttime schedule. Knowing their bedtime is crucial because sometimes they may be too tired and skip tooth brushing.

For example, if your child usually goes to sleep by 8 p.m., have them do their nightly brushing and flossing at 7:15 p.m. That way, your toddler is a bit more cooperative.

Make it fun

It’s important for your toddler that you make their experience of brushing their teeth fun. I would always make Levi my son watch funny cartoon videos on YouTube, so that he has an idea how to brush his teeth. 

Some of those videos are “Brush your teeth” by Super Simple Songs or “Brush your teeth” by Songs by Littles. Watching them, my son would mimic how to brush his teeth. Before he turned one year old, he would hold his brush and pretend he was brushing his teeth. Sometimes I would sing the song to him so that he could practice.

Make it flavorful

You can ease your toddler’s first dental visit by finding a children’s toothpaste with a gentle flavor that he or she enjoys brushing with. Mint toothpaste is good for adults, but bubble gum or chocolate toothpaste may be more appealing to children.

I first bought my son  bubble gum-flavored toothpaste, and he loved it. As he is now almost two, we decided to switch to something that is less sweet but also non-fluoridated. Children as young as 18 months can be brushed with pea-sized amounts of non-fluoridated toothpaste. 

It varies from child to child: some are born with teeth, others begin to get them at a young age and some as they age. My mom always said that one of my brothers was born with a tooth, which is kind of funny if you ask me. 

Once your toddler learns how to spit, around two years old, switch to fluoride toothpaste to protect against dental decay.

baby washing his teeth

Levi and his dad during a toothbrush morning routine.

Play pretend

Before taking them on their first visit, try a play-acting “trip to the dentist” with a stuffed animal. Pretend you’re brushing the stuffed animal and asking them questions about their teeth. The whole point of this is to make them as familiar with the experience as possible. So, when the real thing comes, they don’t freak out. 

For example, I taught my toddler how to hold his brush, how to make those back and forward movements with his toothbrush and also how to open his mouth and say “ahhhh” so that he was ready for his first visit.

Praise and positive reinforcement

Visiting the dentist is a new and sometimes scary experience for children. No amount of preparation can guarantee a perfect first visit to the dentist. Positive reinforcement helps kids become excited to take care of their teeth and themselves. I always make sure to let my son know he’s doing a good job when he’s brushing, or say “yay!” when he is done brushing.

When I was a kid, I hated going to the dentist. The only fun part of going was getting a free toy after a checkup at the clinic. I made sure that my son got the same experience at his first dental visit.

If there is anything I can help young mothers and fathers with, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at amairani@latinomedia.org

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Amairani Hernandez is a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of the California State University of Los Angeles with a degree in Broadcast Journalism. She is a staff multimedia journalist, who focuses on...