During a dental exam for children, the dentist or hygienist will clean your child’s teeth and evaluate your child’s risk of tooth decay. A dental exam for children might include application of various protective measures — such as sealants or fluoride treatments — to reduce the risk of decay. A dental exam for children might also include dental X-rays (radiographs) or other diagnostic procedures.

During a dental exam for children, the dentist or hygienist will likely discuss your child’s diet and oral hygiene habits and demonstrate proper brushing and flossing techniques. Other topics for discussion during a dental exam for children might include preventing oral injuries or, for adolescents, the health risks associated with tobacco, substance abuse and oral piercings.

Regular dental exams help protect your child’s oral health. Dental exams give your child’s dentist a chance to provide tips on caring for your child’s teeth, as well as detect any problems early — when they’re most treatable.

When to have a dental exam

Various factors might determine how frequently your child needs to have a dental exam, including his or her age, health and risk of tooth decay. Consider these general guidelines:

  • Ages 6 months to 1 year. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and the American Dental Association recommend scheduling a child’s first dental exam after the first tooth erupts and no later than his or her first birthday. Also expect your baby’s teeth and gums to be examined at well-baby checkups.
  • Toddlers, school-age children and adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends scheduling regular dental checkups, with the most common interval being every six months. However, the dentist might recommend fewer or more frequent visits depending on your child’s risk factors for oral health problems.

Before scheduling your child’s first dental exam, consider whether you’d be most comfortable visiting your family dentist or taking your child to a pediatric dentist — a dentist who provides specialized dental and oral care to children, from infants to teens. Pediatric dentists typically have child-friendly offices and equipment specially designed for children.

To help prepare your child for a dental exam:

  • Carefully time your child’s visit. Schedule dental exams for your child at a time of day when he or she is well-rested and most likely to be cooperative.
  • Be positive. When talking to your child about his or her dental exam, avoid using words such as “pain” or “hurt.” Instead, tell your child that the dentist will use special tools to make sure your child’s teeth are healthy. Remind your child that you visit the dentist, too — but don’t talk about any negative dental experiences you might have had.
  • Listen to your child. Encourage your child to share any fears he or she might have about visiting the dentist or having a dental exam.

What happens during a dental exam for children might vary depending on the child’s age and treatment needs.

Ages 6 months to 1 year

The dentist or hygienist might place your child on a table or have you hold your child on your lap to conduct the exam. Then the dentist or hygienist will likely:

  • Evaluate your child’s oral hygiene and overall health, drinking and eating habits, and his or her risk of tooth decay
  • Remove any stains or deposits on your child’s teeth by gently scrubbing with a wet toothbrush
  • Demonstrate proper cleaning techniques
  • Assess how much fluoride your child is getting through his or her diet and use of oral hygiene products — and, if necessary, prescribe a fluoride supplement or apply a topical fluoride treatment to your child’s teeth
  • Look for sores or bumps on your child’s tongue, inside the cheeks, and on the roof of the mouth
  • Evaluate the impact of habits such as pacifier use and thumb sucking

Toddlers, school-age children and adolescents

During each regular checkup, the dentist or hygienist will continue to evaluate your child’s oral hygiene and overall health, drinking and eating habits, and his or her risk of tooth decay. In addition to cleaning your child’s teeth, the dentist or hygienist might:

  • Take dental X-rays or, if necessary, do other diagnostic procedures
  • Apply sealants — thin, protective plastic coatings — to permanent molars and other back teeth susceptible to decay
  • Repair any cavities or tooth defects
  • Look for any problems in the way your child’s upper and lower teeth fit together
  • Counsel your child about the impact of thumb sucking, jaw clenching or nail biting
  • Recommend pre-orthodontic treatment, such as a special mouthpiece, or orthodontics, such as braces, to straighten your child’s teeth or adjust your child’s bite

As your child gets older, dental exams might also include counseling about the oral health risks associated with:

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