Taking kids to the dentist is necessary to keep their teeth healthy and promote excellent oral hygiene habits. But from a child’s point of view, a trip to the dentist can be a scary event — lying on a chair in an unfamiliar room filled with unfamiliar noises and objects, all while a stranger is poking cold, metallic, and unusual instruments in his mouth. Plus, as your child’s teeth continue to fall out and grow, he may take at least 10 trips to the dentist before starting kindergarten. To help ease future visits for your child (and for the dentist!), follow these steps so that he will feel comfortable and more relaxed.
The earlier a child visits the dentist, the better. “This will provide your child with a ‘dental home’ where all her needs — whether a periodic preventive visit or an emergency — will be taken care of,” says Rhea Haugseth, D.M.D., president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. It’s best that the first visit starts at age 1 or when the first tooth is visible.
When preparing for a visit, especially the first time, try not to include too many details. Doing so will raise more questions, and adding more information about an extra treatment like a filling he might need may cause unnecessary anxiety. Keep a positive attitude when discussing an upcoming visit, but don’t give your child false hope. “Avoid saying that everything will be fine because if your child ends up needing a treatment, he might lose trust in both the dentist and you,” says Joel H. Berg, D.D.S., M.S., Director of the Department of Dentistry at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“Don’t use the ‘S’ (shot),’H’ (hurt) or ‘P’ (pain) words with children. Let the staff introduce their own vocabulary to children to help them get through difficult situations,” Dr. Berg suggests. Instead, tell your child that the dentist is looking for “sugar bugs” so he can clean them off their teeth. “My favorite thing to have parents tell their child is that we are going to check their smile and count their teeth — that’s it, nothing else,” says Michael J. Hanna, D.M.D., a pediatric dentist in McKee Rocks, Pennsylvania, and a national spokesperson of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Use positive phrases like “clean, strong, healthy teeth” to make the visit seem fun and good rather than scary and alarming.
Before the first dentist appointment, play pretend with your child to be the dentist and the patient, Dr. Berg says. All you’ll need is a toothbrush. Count your little one’s teeth by starting with the number 1 or the letter A. Avoid making drilling noises or lining up other “instruments.” You can even hold up a mirror and show her how the dentist might look at and check her teeth. Then let your child role-play by using a toothbrush to clean the teeth of a stuffed animal or doll. The key is getting her familiar with the routine so that she’s more comfortable for the real visit.
Picture books with detailed illustrations and easy-to-understand language can also help children get a sense of what to expect. Read Spongebob Squarepants’ Behold No Cavities! A Visit to the Dentist or Dora the Explorer’s Show Me Your Smile!: A Visit to the Dentist.
Some parents take their children with them to their own dentist appointment, but experts say this is a mistake. Parents themselves might feel anxious about the visit without even realizing it, and their child might sense those fears. Telling “war stories” about extractions, root canals, or other negative experiences will also trigger anxiety, especially because your child may not even have those procedures. Taking your child to a sterile, adult office also gives the wrong impression, whereas most pediatric dentists make their offices kid-friendly — some have video games, pleasing pictures on the walls, and movies or TV shows kids enjoy.
“It is normal and age-appropriate for a young child to cry, whine, wiggle, and not want to be examined by a stranger,” Dr. Haugseth points out. “Stay calm and remember that the dentist and her staff are used to working with children and have seen their share of tantrums.” Let the dental care professionals guide you; they might ask you to stay at a distance or to hold your little one’s hand, which will provide comfort and prevent him from grabbing any dental instruments.
Many experts do not recommend promising your child a special treat if she behaves well at the dentist. Doing so will only increase their apprehension. Saying, “If you don’t fuss or cry, you’ll get a lollipop,” might make your little one think, “What’s so bad about the dentist that I might want to cry?” Promising a sugary treat also sends the wrong message after a dentist emphasizes having clean, healthy teeth by avoiding sweets that can cause cavities. Instead, after the visit is over, praise your child for her good behavior and bravery. Every once in a while, surprise her with a sticker or a small toy as an encouragement.
Teach your child that visiting the dentist is a necessity, not a choice and that the dentist will take care of his teeth so that they are strong enough for him to eat. You might also explain that the dentist helps keep cavities at bay and ensures that his patients will have a beautiful smile for years to come. As Dr. Haugseth explains, “A no-nonsense attitude from the parent will set the stage for what the child should expect to achieve excellent oral health.”