Although child health experts recommend that children begin oral health care by age 1 or when their first teeth emerge, a new report from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health shows that most children ages 1-2 have not yet started seeing a dentist.

In May 2011, the National Poll on Children's Health asked parents of children ages 1-5 about dental health care for young children. The poll found that only 23% of 1-year-olds had been to the dentist and only 44% of 2-year-olds had been to the dentist.

"Dental problems such as early childhood caries (cavities in the baby teeth) are the leading cause of chronic disease for young children," says Sarah Clark, M.P.H., Associate Director of the Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Unit at the University of Michigan. "Most dental problems can be prevented through good oral health care."

Parents may not be aware of recommendations for early dental health care and finding a dentist who will see young children especially those covered by Medicaid is a long standing problem in some communities. To address these issues, pediatricians and health care providers are now seen as important partners in oral health and are encouraged to discuss oral health during well-child visits.

"Well-child visits are critical to making sure that parents understand their role in preventing dental problems, such as how to clean the child's baby teeth and the importance of avoiding sugary beverages and bottles in the crib," says Clark. "Well-child visits are also a key opportunity for a health professional to examine the child's baby teeth and make sure that children with early signs of decay are strongly encouraged to see a dentist."

However, when parents of 1-2 year olds were asked about dental health activities that occurred at their child's most recent well-child visit, less than half of parents said their health care providers talked to them about cleaning the teeth or taking their child to the dentist and 1 in 3 children did not have their teeth examined at all by their health care provider.

"We know that not all children will see a dentist at age 1, but on the other hand, almost all children have well-child visits with a pediatrician or other health care provider," Clark continues. "The results of this poll indicate that we need to improve the way oral health issues are addressed during well-child visits so that parents fully understand the need for good oral health care."