Is Seeing a Pediatric Dentist Necessary? Specialties and How to Find One You Trust

Is Seeing a Pediatric Dentist Necessary? Specialties and How to Find One You Trust
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Is Seeing a Pediatric Dentist Necessary? Specialties and How to Find One You TrustClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. Pediatric vs. Family Dentistry
  2. What Sets Them Apart?
  3. Age Group & How Often
  4. Why Take Your Child
  5. What to Expect
  6. How to Tell
  7. How to Find One
  8. Autism & Pediatric Dentistry
  9. Frequently Asked Questions
  10. References

Pediatric dentists are dental specialists who provide care exclusively to children.

Children often receive dental care from their family, especially as toddlers, or from family dentists or general dentists instead of a dedicated pediatric dentist. However, they will likely receive better care from a pediatric dentist, particularly if they are anxious about dental visits or have special needs.

Several online tools can help you find a pediatric dentist in your area. You can then investigate this dentist further to determine if they are the right choice for your child.

Pediatric Dentistry vs. Family Dentistry

Although both pediatric dentists and family dentists offer dental care for children, services are not the same.

Family Dentists

Family dentists (also sometimes called general dentists) are dentists who serve patients of all ages. They are called family dentists because many have full families on their patient roster, including parents and children. Family dentists’ offices tend to be more child-friendly than those of adult specialty dentists (such as prosthodontists or cosmetic dentists) but they are still primarily focused on serving adult patients. Their office atmosphere, equipment, services, and other aspects of their practice reflect this.

Pediatric Dentists

Pediatric dentists are specialty dentists who have received two years of additional training in children's dentistry. They also serve children exclusively, although they may make the occasional exception for adults with special needs.

Pediatric dentists provide a superior experience for children. They create a friendly, unintimidating environment for their young patients that helps ease children into a regular dental care routine that will help them maintain good oral health for life.

They also provide specific child-focused services, such as orthodontic screenings and habit counseling for thumb-sucking.

What Sets a Pediatric Dentist Apart?

What Makes a Pediatric Dentist Different

Child patients and their parents will notice them in the areas of:

  • Training
  • Equipment
  • Experience
  • Specialized services
Training
In addition to four years of dental school, a pediatric dentist must complete a two-year residency focused on caring for children's unique dental needs. During this time, they learn about things like behavioral strategies, educational techniques, and how to supervise a child’s dental development.
Equipment

Pediatric dentists use smaller dental tools that fit more comfortably in your child's mouth. These tools also look less intimidating than full-sized counterparts, which may make some children less anxious about undergoing dental treatment.

Dentists often keep additional tools on hand to help manage children's anxiety, such as stuffed toys, stress balls, and soft putty. Children can touch and squeeze these items during their appointments to calm themselves as needed.

The chairs at a pediatric dental office may also be smaller or shaped differently from standard adult chairs (for example, they might look like beds or rocket ships). This makes the office look much less intimidating.

Experience

Because pediatric dentists treat children exclusively, they often have much more colorful and welcoming offices than your average dentist. They may also offer fun toys and TVs with kid-oriented programming to keep your children happy and distracted during their visit.

Their specialized practices employee hygienists and office staffers who also understand that children cannot be expected to behave the same way adult patients do. As a result, they are more patient during visits and are often willing to do things like allow parents to hold their child’s hand during treatment.

Specialized Services

Children often need different dental services than adults do. Because their teeth have not usually had the time to develop extensive damage or decay, they benefit from an increased focus on oral hygiene and other preventive measures.

Dental injuries are also more common in this age group and require appropriate treatment to avoid negative outcomes like tooth loss. Some of the child-focused services that pediatric dentists provide include:

  • Preventive dental care, including cleanings and fluoride treatments.
  • Oral health education, including tips on how to properly brush and floss, and information on how dietary choices and eating frequency impacts your child's teeth and gums.
  • Treatment of dental injuries from falls, roughhousing, contact sports, and other accidents.
  • Habit counseling to keep behaviors like thumb-sucking from affecting the alignment of your child's teeth.
  • Early assessment for orthodontics.

What Age Group Should See a Pediatric Dentist? How Often?

Children should visit a pediatric dentist for the first time before they are 12 months old or by the time their first tooth appears.

After that, most child should continue to visit their pediatric dentist every 6 months for routine checkups and cleanings until they become an adult at age 18. Children who are deemed to be at high risk for tooth decay may need to visit more often. Your child's dentist will tell you if these extra visits are necessary for them.

Finally, your pediatric dentist may also serve as your child's emergency dentist if they experience immediate problems like dental injuries or infections.

Depending on your child's needs, their pediatric dentist may also refer you to an orthodontist or other specialty dentist for certain types of care. These referrals may require additional visits to other dental offices as your child grows.

Pediatric dentists offer several advantages for children compared to general dentists.

Why Take Your Child to a Pediatric Dentist?

All children benefit from seeing a pediatric dentist instead of a general dentist, but the difference is more important to some children than others.

Some children experience severe anxiety around dental visits, making it difficult to maintain regular dental visits. Pediatric dentists know how to soothe these fears while still ensuring that your child gets the dental care they need.

Children with special needs (including behavioral challenges, developmental conditions, and even physical disabilities) also benefit from seeing a pediatric dentist. These specialists are trained in behavior as well as dentistry. They are much more likely to be able to get your child to sit still and undergo their check-ups, cleanings, and treatments than a general dentist would be. Your child will also have a better experience in their care and may have an easier time attending dental appointments in the future.

What to Expect at a Pediatric Dental Appointment

You can expect your child’s pediatric dentist appointments to follow the steps outlined below.

The First Appointment

At your child’s first pediatric dentist appointment, the dentist will:

  • Thoroughly examine your child's teeth and gums for any signs of problems.
  • Create a treatment plan to address any problems they find, such as early childhood caries.
  • Give your child a gentle dental cleaning if needed.
  • Ask you questions about your child’s dental development and how you have been caring for their teeth.
  • Assess your child's risk of tooth decay based on their diet and snacking habits, your oral hygiene routine at home and the present state of their oral health.

They will also educate you on:

  • The causes of early childhood caries and how to prevent it.
  • How to brush your child’s teeth, including when to use fluoride toothpaste and how much you should use.
  • How to prevent injuries to your child's teeth and gums during play.
  • The impact that behaviors like pacifier use and thumb-sucking can have on your child’s teeth.
  • Other aspects of your child's dental development, including major milestones you can expect them to hit in the coming months.

Follow-Up Appointments

At follow-up appointments, your child’s dentist will:

  • Examine your child’s teeth and gums for signs of oral health problems.
  • Create a treatment plan to address any tooth decay or tooth injuries they spot.
  • Clean and polish your child’s teeth.
  • Check your child’s bite for developing malocclusions (orthodontic problems).
  • Coach you and your child on their diet and oral hygiene with tips tailored to their specific habits and needs.
  • Answer any questions you have about your child’s oral health.

Your child will not need dental x-rays until one of the following things happens:

  • Their dentist spots evidence of active tooth decay.
  • The sides of their teeth touch and cannot be examined visually or with a probe.
  • Their first permanent tooth erupts.

Once any of these things has occurred, your child’s pediatric dentist will take x-rays of their mouth every six to 36 months depending on their age and needs.

Once your child is 6 or older, their pediatric dentist will also start giving them fluoride treatments to strengthen their teeth. Before this time, their pediatric dentist may apply small amounts of fluoride varnish to their teeth as needed.

How to Tell If a Dentist Is a Pediatric Dentist

All pediatric dentists are certified by the American Board of Pediatric Dentistry (ABPD). The board maintains a registry of currently practicing pediatric dentists across the country. It also lists the year in which each dentist obtained their pediatric certification.

If you know the name of the dentist whose credentials you want to check, you can search for their name in this registry. If they appear, you will know they are a legitimate pediatric dentist.

How to Find a Board-Certified Pediatric Dentist

The website for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry includes an easy search tool to help parents find a certified pediatric dentist in their local area.

However, not every pediatric dentist will be an ideal fit for your child. To find the best one for your child’s needs, you can take a few additional steps:

  • If you have dental insurance for your child, ask your insurance company for a list of in-network pediatric dentists in your area. This will ensure that you choose a dentist who will accept your insurance, making the cost of care much more affordable.
  • Ask other parents you know if they have a pediatric dentist they can recommend.
  • Visit the dentist’s office and observe their waiting room. Does it look like a child-friendly space? Do the children waiting seem relaxed and content?
  • If possible, briefly interview the pediatric dentist and their staff. Ask them what their day-to-day is like and what they do to improve the patient experience for the children in their care. If your child has any behavioral problems or special needs, ask the staff if they have any experience with patients like this and how they handle those challenges.

Autism & Pediatric Dentistry

Pediatric dentistry is especially helpful for children with autism. Kids with autism often have heightened sensory sensitivities and struggle to cope with all the unfamiliar sights, sounds, tastes, and smells they encounter during a typical dental visit.

Pediatric dentists understand these sensory needs and take steps to minimize these problems for their autistic patients.

Your child’s pediatric dentist might dim the lighting during your visit, provide your child with a weighted blanket for their lap, or do any number of other things to make the environment more comfortable for your child.

They may also give you some tips to make your child’s home care more sensory-friendly, such as using a non-foaming toothpaste or using a visual schedule to reinforce your brushing routine.

Children with autism also need a lot of structure and predictability in their lives to function at their best. Seeing the same dentist in the same office during each visit creates a dental health routine. Over time, your child will become familiar with their pediatric dentist's office, its staff, and how appointments work there. This will help your child become accustomed to the process and reduce their anxiety.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is pediatric dentistry different?
Pediatric dentistry offers more comfortable and comprehensive dental treatment for children compared to general dentistry. Children (especially those with behavioral difficulties or developmental conditions like autism) are much more likely to have a positive experience when visiting a pediatric dentist. This can help reduce anxiety surrounding dental visits and set your child up for better oral health for life.
At what age should a child begin seeing a pediatric dentist?
Children should visit a pediatric dentist for the first time by the time they are around 12 months old, or when their first tooth erupts. After that, they should visit every six months until they reach adulthood.

References

What is a Pediatric Dentist? (October 2016). American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Dental Home: It's Never Too Early to Start. (February 2007). American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). (2022). American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

How to Choose a Dentist (in Four Steps). (2022). MouthHealthy.

A Child's First Dental Visit Fact Sheet. (2022). Stanford Children’s Health.

Prescribing Dental Radiographs for Infants, Children, Adolescents, and Individuals with Special Health Care Needs. (2021). American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Fluoride Therapy. (2018). American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Pediatric Dental Workforce Study: What Does it Mean for the Future of Your Practice? (March 2020). Pediatric Dentistry Today.

Overview. (2021). American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Children's Oral Health. (April 2021). Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The Pediatric Dentist. (2011). American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Keeping Your Child's Teeth Healthy. (June 2018). Nemours KidsHealth.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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