Many patients ask me when their child should begin seeing a dentist. The answer is not always clear. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that a child see the dentist by 1 year of age, while the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests waiting until a child's birthday (unless they have risk factors for having problems with their teeth).
When the baby's first teeth come in, parents can wipe them off with a soft washcloth. Never leave a bottle in a baby's crib or nurse a child throughout the night, as this may lead to early cavities in the first teeth.
I recommend getting a child a toothbrush at 12-15 months and letting the toddler begin brushing his/her own teeth by mimicking the parents or siblings. Dab on a smidgen of toothpaste with fluoride, but don't let your child just "eat" big globs of toothpaste because they like it. Too much fluoride can also be a problem. (You can buy fluoride-free toothpaste if you are concerned.)
Pediatric dentists encourage parents to floss their children's teeth in the early years.
Many dentists will do what's called a "lap visit" for the first few appointments, during which they let the mother or father hold a 1- or 2-year-old and the dentist gets the child comfortable by opening his/her mouth or having the child look at the dental instruments. For most kids, their first cleaning is done at their 3-year-old visit. Dental checkups are then scheduled every 6 months.
Due to good dental hygiene, many of my patients are cavity free even as they enter their teen years! I wish I could have said the same thing for myself.
(Dr. Sue Hubbard is a nationally known pediatrician and co-host of "The Kid's Doctor" radio show. Submit questions at http://www.kidsdr.com.)