May 9th, 2011
07:44 AM ET

When should my baby see a dentist?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Mondays, it's pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu.

Asked by Samantha from San Diego, California

Q: My baby just turned 1 year old and has eight teeth. When does he need to start seeing a dentist?

Expert answer

One easy rule of thumb is "first visit by first birthday." The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that the first dental visit take place when the first tooth appears, usually between 6 months and 1 year of age.

There has been some disagreement about the first dental visit, however, so you may hear recommendations ranging from going within 6 months of the first tooth's eruption to waiting until past 3 years of age.

Delaying the visit is not advised since according to the CDC, 20% of children between the ages of 2 and 5 years already have at least one untreated cavity.

Early visits with a pediatric dentist can help catch problems before they progress. The dentist can also teach parents how best to take care of their child's teeth and build good habits.

According to Parvathi Pokala, DDS, the first dental visit at age 1 is very simple and includes an examination for normal growth and development, checking for cavities, and lots of education for the family on cavity prevention.

This includes information about diet and nutrition, tooth brushing, use of fluoridated toothpaste, and preventing bacteria that cause cavities passing from parent to child. Fluoride varnish may be applied to the teeth as it is very good at preventing cavities. Often X-rays and cleaning may be delayed until a future visit.

It's important to start seeing a dentist even for the primary, or baby, teeth because these teeth are holding a space for the permanent ones. Problems with the baby teeth can affect feeding and speech. Cavities in baby teeth can also sometimes affect the development of the permanent teeth.

If in doubt, I encourage patients to see a dentist sooner rather than later. If you have dental insurance for your child, you can check with the plan's web site for a pediatric dentist in your area.

Your child's pediatrician may also be able to recommend one.

Follow Dr. Shu on Twitter and on her blog, ParentingSense.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.