When should I take my child to the dentist?

Chris Steele
Founder and Editor
Chris is our resident private health insurance and healthcare expert. He has over a decade of experience writing about private medical insurance and treatment. He's Chartered Insurance Institute qualified and is regularly quoted by the national press.
Chris Steele
Updated on
January 22, 2024

Going to the dentist yourself might not be your favourite activity, but it’s important to establish a routine for your children. Particularly as research from the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry (BSPD) shows that one in eight children show signs of dental decay by the time they are three. To help give your baby’s teeth the best start, we look at when you should take them to the dentist for the first time, and what you can do to encourage healthy teeth and gums.

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When should a child first see a dentist, UK?

Advice from the BSPD is that you should take your child to the dentist as soon as their first teeth come through. Ideally, they should see the dentist by the time they are one.

If you have a dental appointment for yourself, it’s a good idea to let your child accompany you (if you can). It’ll give them a chance to become familiar with the environment.

At what age should a child have their first dental check-up?

The recommendation is for children to see the dentist by the time they are one. Otherwise, there is no fixed age for when your child should have their first dental visit.

What happens at my child’s first dental appointment?

Your dentist will try to look at your child’s teeth. This is to check how many teeth they have, how they’re growing and to spot any signs of decay or potential developmental problems. It also gives you an opportunity to ask any questions or raise any concerns.

However, don’t worry if your child refuses to open their mouth. Most experienced dentists will be used to this. It’s more important to establish the habit of going to the dentist and getting used to being there and building a routine, so don’t be put off by your child’s reluctance.

How often should my child visit the dentist?

Your dentist will recommend how often you should schedule visits for your child but it’s usually every six months. Advice from the BSPD is that check-ups should be no more than 12 months apart.

Good oral hygiene which includes dental check-ups, helps minimise any potential issues. Regular visits to your dentist should mean any problems are spotted early before they become serious.

How should I prepare my child for their first visit to the dentist?

Going to the dentist shouldn’t be stressful for you or your child. If it helps, dental visits should be treated just as any other routine appointment, like seeing a health visitor or going to your GP surgery for their childhood vaccines.

If you want to get your child used to the idea of visiting the dentist, you can encourage them to look at picture books or watch children’s programmes that discuss this. Pretend play can also be a good way to get them to practise opening their mouths so the dentist can count their teeth.

All in all, it’s about reassuring them that going to the dentist is not something to be scared or anxious about.

How much does dental treatment cost for children?

Dental treatment is free for children under 18. It is also free for anyone under 19 and still in full-time education.

Plus, don’t forget that if you’re pregnant or have had a baby in the last 12 months, you are also entitled to free dental treatment under the NHS.

How do you treat tooth decay in children?

If your child shows signs of tooth decay, your dentist will discuss the various options. In some cases, if the tooth is already wobbly, it may fall out naturally before anything needs to be done.

If not, then your dentist may recommend a filling or extraction. If your child needs a filling, your dentist will usually give them a local anaesthetic if they need to drill out the decayed part of the tooth. The filling could be made of a metal amalgam (a combination of metals) or a newer composite filling which is made of resin.

Composite fillings are hardened by a special light so they’re less time-consuming and less invasive compared to traditional metal fillings. However, depending on your dentist, you may not have a choice.

If the decay is extensive, your dentist may suggest the tooth is removed. Your dentist will usually be able to do this under a local anaesthetic. If several teeth need to be removed, you may be referred to a hospital where your child’s teeth will be removed under general anaesthetic by a dental surgeon.

Is tooth extraction safe for children?

Your regular dentist can carry out tooth extractions, using a local anaesthetic. Normally, your dentist will take an x-ray to assess the area before they remove the tooth. 

The extraction itself is usually a simple procedure and you’ll be given aftercare advice you can follow at home. The effects of a local anaesthetic may last for around two hours after it was given. So, although it only numbs the area around the extracted tooth, they should take care not to bite their tongue or cheek.

If your child needs to go to hospital, their teeth will usually be removed while they’re under a general anaesthetic (GA). This means they’ll be asleep and won’t be aware of the surgery. However, the effects of a GA can take longer to wear off so your child will usually need to stay in hospital for a few hours, just to make sure they’re well enough to go home.

Teeth extraction for children and adults is relatively routine. Even if your child needs to go to hospital for treatment under a general anaesthetic, it is considered a safe operation. That said, all operations carry some degree of risk, and this will be explained to you before you agree for the surgery to take place.

If your child has several teeth removed, their mouth is likely to feel sore, there may also be swelling and bleeding. This is normal and you’ll be given advice on how to help them manage this. There is some minimal risk of infection post-surgery but again, you’ll be told what to do and who to call if you have any concerns.

Do baby teeth actually matter?

Yes, baby teeth really do matter. Untreated problems or poor oral hygiene can lead to issues that affect their adult teeth.

Not only that, baby teeth are important because they:

  • Act as placeholders for adult teeth.
  • Enable children to chew.
  • Help with speech development.
  • Enable healthy jaw growth and facial development.  

How can I keep my child’s teeth healthy?

Being a parent can be exhausting but helping your child look after their teeth doesn’t need to take up much time; tips include:

  • Establishing a routine of brushing teeth twice a day (once should be before bed).
  • Regularly taking your child to the dentist after their milk teeth first appear.
  • Helping very young children (under seven) to brush their teeth, you should use a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Avoid sugary foods, fizzy drinks and sweets, particularly as snacks. Even some foods considered healthy contain a lot of sugar, such as dried fruit and honey.
  • Snacks should be as sugar-free as possible, for example, raw vegetables, cheese, breadsticks, houmous and pitta bread, plain (unflavoured) yoghurt. 

Can you get private dental insurance for children?

Children receive free dental treatment under the NHS, this includes check-ups, fillings, and extractions. Dental care is also free for anyone aged 19 and in full-time education.

That said, you can buy dental insurance plans for children and some dental practices offer their own schemes. These plans work just like other dental policies, so you’ll pay a monthly or annual fee (premium) which covers the cost of your child’s routine visits and essential treatment. Plans are also available from providers such as Denplan. If you have your own private dental insurance, you may be able to add your child to your policy.

If you do want more information about dental plans in general and how they can help you (or your child), let us know. We can introduce you to a regulated broker who can take you through your options either as an individual or as a family.

Disclaimer: This information is general and what is best for you will depend on your personal circumstances. Please speak with a financial adviser or do your own research before making a decision.

Chris Steele
Founder and Editor

Chris is our resident private health insurance and healthcare expert. He has over a decade of experience writing about private medical insurance and treatment. He's Chartered Insurance Institute qualified and is regularly quoted by the national press.