toddler at their first dentist appointment

Preparing Your Kid for Their First Visit to the Dentist

April 19, 2024

Dentist visits, like annual physicals, are a regular part of taking care of our health.

Explaining a dentist visit to a child—especially their first visit—should be simple and reassuring, helping them feel comfortable and prepared. It should also encourage checkups throughout their life.

We spoke to Amy Herbert, DDS, MHA, to learn more.

When should a child first see a dentist?

When the first tooth comes in, typically around six months, or by the time the child turns one.

What do all parents ask you about a child’s first dental appointments, and what do you tell them?

Why start going when children are young?

In addition to identifying early concerns, it is good to establish the practice of visiting the dentist and establishing a positive routine. This first appointment helps get a child used to visiting the dentist.

It is also an opportunity to teach a parent about their child’s oral health: various kinds of toothpaste, diet, and nutrition (snacking habits and food and drink choices), and when and how to brush effectively are discussed.

We may also talk about teething, non-nutritive sucking habits (thumb sucking and pacifier use), sippy cups, utensils, and transitioning to table food and regular cups.

After the first dentist visit, you always have someone to call if your child has a dental injury.

Is there a best time or day of the week for the first dentist visit?

Typically, the morning is the best time for young patients, not only because they are fresh and alert, but so is the caretaker!

Try to avoid taking your child to the dentist the same day you take them to the pediatrician or other doctor. It can be too much.

How long does the first dentist visit last?

30 to 45 minutes.

What happens at the first dentist’s visit, and how should a parent or caregiver explain it to a child?

Depending on their age and level of cooperation, the child may be seated on the parent’s lap or in the dentist’s chair on their own. Like all visits, the first visit usually includes an exam of the teeth, jaws, bite, gums, and oral tissues to check growth and development. If needed, a child may also have a gentle cleaning. This includes polishing teeth and removing any plaque, tartar, and stains.

The dentist should show the child and parent or caregiver how and when to properly clean teeth, floss, and brush at home. Sometimes, there may also be X-rays. But typically, they aren’t done until a child has contact between their teeth (they are touching). If there are any issues or concerns, the dentist will discuss treatment options.

What should I say or do for my kid to prepare them?

Here are a few things you might want to cover with your child:

  • Explain what a dentist is and what they do.
    • A dentist looks at your teeth and gums to see if everything is okay and healthy.
    • A dentist—or dental hygienist—cleans teeth with special tools that remove tartar and plaque and floss and polish your teeth to help keep them healthy.
  • Prepare them for some of the things that a dentist might say. For instance,
    • “sugar bugs” (bacteria)
    • “spinny brush” (handpiece)
    • “vitamins for teeth” (fluoride treatment)
  • Use a book to help
  • Read books together about a character going to the dentist, such as Curious George Visits The Dentist or Peppa Pig’s Dentist Trip.

What age should dental X-rays start?

It varies.

X-rays usually start when the contact areas (where the teeth touch) are not visible. That’s typically after all primary teeth have come in. This happens at different ages. The schedule of follow-ups is decided based on individual risk and diagnoses.

If the dentist sees signs of decay or other pathology in the primary dentition, they may decide to take radiographs sooner.

Early loss of baby teeth can lead to other oral health issues. Additionally, untreated decay in baby teeth increases the likelihood of a child experiencing cavities in their permanent teeth.

What do all kids ask you, and what do you say?

Is it going to hurt?

To help them relax, we explain what will happen during the exam, show the instruments, and allow them to touch them if they wish. The key is explaining things in a language they can understand: “special pen” instead of the probe; “go for a ride” when manipulating the dental chair.

Preparing children and not surprising them is important.

What’s the best way to pick a dentist for your child?

Many people find their dentist by word of mouth, from their pediatrician, and by treatment philosophy. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the American Board of Pediatric Dentists have search tools on their websites.


Amy Herbert, DDS, MHA, is an assistant professor of dental medicine at Columbia.