Eight in 10 children aged between one and two years did not visit an NHS dentists in 2016/17, according to new data from the Royal College of Surgeons Faculty of Dental Surgery, despite NHS dental care being free for under 18s.

The Faculty said that ‘widespread confusion’ among parents regarding oral healthcare for babies and toddlers, as well as a misunderstanding of NHS dental charges for children, was the reason behind the lack of dental visits for this demographic.

‘Widespread confusion’

‘In a nation which offers free dental care for under-18s, there should be no excuse for these statistics,’ commented Professor Nigel Hunt, dean of the Faculty.

‘Yet we know from parents we speak to that there is widespread confusion, even in advice given to them by NHS staff, about when a child should first visit the dentist.’

Analysis by the Faculty identified that throughout 2016, only 19.1% of one- to two-year-olds visited the dentist, although that proportion rose to 20.2% in the 12 months to the end of March.

‘The earlier a child visits the dentist, the earlier any potential problems can be picked up, so it is easier to prevent children having to go through the trauma of having their teeth removed under a general anaesthetic,’ said Professor Hunt.

‘Discouraged’

The British Dental Association (BDA) has conducted polling with Yougov, indicating that millions of UK parents are unaware that NHS dentistry is free for children under 18, with the Association criticising the government’s increasing over-reliance on patient charges, which, the BDA says, exist to discourage patients from seeking care.

‘Tooth decay is the number one reason for child hospital admissions, yet the overriding priority of successive governments has been keeping patient numbers down’, commented BDA chair, Mick Armstrong.

‘There are no public education campaigns, budget is set aside to treat just over half the population, while charge hikes are designed to make patients think twice about treatment.

‘The net result is even those who don’t need to pay are put off by costs.

‘The fact millions of parents are unaware these check-ups are free of charge shows just how little energy the authorities have put into prevention.

‘The next government must focus on reaching out to patients of all ages, not erecting new barriers to care.’

Positive impression

Hospitals in England performed a total of 9,220 tooth extractions in 2015-16 among children aged between one and four.

More two- and three-year-olds appeared to visit a dentist; the proportion of children aged one to four not visiting was 60%.

‘Dental checkups in early years are as much about getting children comfortable in a dental environment as they are about checking teeth’, said Professor Hunt.

‘Simply getting a child to open their mouth for a dentist to look at their teeth is useful practice for the future.

‘First impressions are vital if we want children to have a long-term positive impression of dentistry.

‘If a first dental visit results in a stressful, traumatic experience, this could have a serious lifelong effect on a child’s willingness to engage in the dental process.’