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The vast majority of parents fail to take young children to the dentist regularly, official figures reveal.

Some 80 per cent of one and two-year-olds in England did not visit an NHS dentist last year, national statistics show.

The figure was 60 per cent for children aged one to four, according to data from NHS Digital.

This is despite the fact that NHS dental care for children is free.

Experts say the earlier a child sees a dentist, the earlier any potential problems can be spotted.

Official guidance states youngsters should start having regular dental check-ups as soon as their first teeth appear – usually at around six months – and continue with appointments once a year.

The Royal College of Surgeons, which collated the statistics, said there was ‘widespread misunderstanding' among parents, and even health professionals, about when a baby should first visit the dentist.

In 2015/16, 9,220 tooth extractions were performed in hospitals in England on children aged one to four.

Experts say many of these cases are attributable to tooth decay, which is 90 per cent preventable through good oral hygiene.

Professor Nigel Hunt, dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, said: "In a nation which offers free dental care for under-18s, there should be no excuse for these statistics.

"Yet we know from parents that there is widespread confusion, even in advice given to them by NHS staff, about when a child should first visit the dentist. Every child should have free and easy access to dental care from the point when their first teeth appear…we cannot continue in this state of confusion."

He said many oral health problems were "easily preventable", adding: "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.

"Dental check-ups in early years are as much about getting children comfortable in a dental environment as it is about checking teeth.

"Simply getting a child to open their mouth for a dentist to look at their teeth is useful practice…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.

"Mothers are also entitled to free dental check-ups during pregnancy and the 12 months after they give birth."

Mick Armstrong, chairman of the British Dental Association, said one in four parents were unaware NHS dentistry is free for under-18s. "Tooth decay is the number one reason for child hospital admissions, yet the overriding priority of successive governments has been keeping patient numbers down," he said. 

"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."

© Daily Mail