As a Dentist, I am easily asked this question 20 times a week or more! If you look at the Journal of the American Dental Association's website, they will recommend you first bring a child to the dentist when their first tooth erupts and not later than their first birthday. This is mostly for parent education and not much is done for the child at this visit.
With most of my patients who are about to become parents or have young ones at home, I teach them what they need to know for their child during their dental exam. I talk with parents about the importance of brushing their teeth as soon as they erupt, to help establish a life long routine. I used the finger brushes on my own children in the very beginning to get them used to the routine, and warm them up to regular brushing. If they are still feeding at night, at least wiping their teeth with a wet wash cloth before putting them back to sleep is a good idea. Typically a visit is not necessary until about 3 years of age when children are a little more cooperative and understanding to what's going on. If the parent has concerns before the child is 3, because their teeth are becoming discolored, they notice something that just doesn't look right, or the child experienced trauma to the teeth, we'll have you come in for a quick consult to look and see what's going on.
It is also important to note that the recommendations on fluoride toothpaste have changed since you and I were kids! We now recommend infants use fluoride toothpaste, but only the size of a grain of rice should be used on the toothbrush. There are many kid friendly flavors out there to choose from, as they may find that the traditional mint toothpaste you normally use is 'spicy' to their gentle taste buds. This little amount of toothpaste will foam enough to have the benefit of fluoride but is a small enough amount that it is not harmful if they swallow it all... which they probably will!
Flossing also becomes important once the teeth begin to touch, which in most children is around age 2. I like to use the floss holders, as it makes it easier to get into their little mouths. Starting at this age also establishes flossing as a daily habit just like brushing! In our house we have everyone brush their teeth every morning and every night, making sure to floss once a day. Establishing this routine has been hard for us, especially after long days in and out of the office or on the road, but we stick to it as we know the long term benefits our children will experience over the course of their life time.
After parents understand how to care for their child's teeth and have been doing so for some time, we will eventually have the child come in for their first appointment around the age of 3. At this age, sometimes they are willing to open wide to say ahhh and sometimes they are not. During this appointment we do as much as he or she will allows us to, even if it is a quick peek at the teeth and a ride in the chair. From this point on we begin to see the child every 6 months in an effort to take a proactive approach for a healthy mouth. Your dental benefits typically cover a high percentage or completely cover preventative appointments, so regular visits will be much cheaper in the long run!
Each visit the child gets more and more used to the routine of dental visits, and the fun that can be had with the right dental team around them. We often recommend them coming in with the parent and watching them at their visit so they know what to expect too. Everyone in our office loves kids too, so they usually get a lot of attention and have some laughs along the way! If you have any questions about when to bring your child into the dentist. Please feel free to call our dental office in Westerville, OH at 614-882-2249 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . I would be more than happy to talk with you about your child and their dental health!