A recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General says 37 percent of children never visited a dentist before entering school, usually at age 5 or 6.
Dr. Michael McGuire, president of the American Academy of Periodontology, says one reason for the unsettling statistic is that many parents don't think it's necessary for their kids to see a dentist until their permanent teeth arrive."A lot of parents think that if those baby teeth are going to fall out, there's not a burning reason why they should spend money and time to maintain their health because those teeth are not important. It's unfortunate, but I think that's the attitude of a lot of people," he says.
Yet such attitudes pave the way for future trouble, McGuire adds.
"The primary -- or the baby teeth -- really set the stage for the health of the mouth down the road. For one thing, the baby teeth are kind of space maintainers for the permanent teeth as they come in. And if you lose the baby teeth prematurely, then sometimes the permanent teeth don't have the space they need to come in appropriately," he says.
Neglecting early dental care probably helps explain another statistic in the Surgeon General's report -- that more than 51 million school hours are lost each year to dental-related illness.
McGuire says that could also be due to embarrassment.
"When the teeth get decayed, it creates a lot of unneeded discomfort for kids," he says. "Not only can they get gingivitis and other gum problems, but it harms their self-esteem and they don't feel good about themselves socially."
So when should you start taking your little one to the dentist?
"Both the ADA and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommend that a child first be seen by a dentist at around one year of age, or when the child has about six to eight teeth," says Dr. Mary J. Hayes, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association (ADA).
Hayes says it's not unusual to encounter parents who don't realize kids can have dental problems in their primary teeth.
"I've seen parents who are actually surprised that children get decay. A lot of decay starts with plaque accumulation. And it doesn't happen overnight, but it can start in the earliest years," she says.
McGuire adds that failure to get kids in the habit of regular brushing while they're little can make it tougher later on.
"It's also a very formative time to develop good oral health habits, and if you're not taking care of these teeth as a young child, it's not like a switch is going to turn on when they get their permanent teeth."
Even the familiar dentist mantra, "Don't forget to floss," applies to children.
"It's important to start flossing as soon as there is no longer space between kids' teeth. Parents will need to help the kids out with that, but it should be started early," McGuire says.