A trip to the dentist can be anxiety-provoking for kids, especially if they’re not prepared for what happens during an exam or routine dental work. But addressing their fears early on can pave the way to a lifetime of good oral hygiene.
Do your homework. Before you schedule your child’s appointment, create a plan to help them care for their teeth. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends children use an appropriate-size toothbrush with a small brushing surface and a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste. They should be supervised while brushing and taught to spit out rather than swallow the toothpaste.
“The more your child sees that taking care of their mouth is a healthy habit and the dental team is there to see what a great job they’re doing at home, the more excited they will be to come into the office,” says Dr. Wayne Stephens, D.D.S., director of the pediatric dental health and wellness program at Jessie Trice Community Health Center.
Demystify the experience. Prior to a first appointment, read a book to your child or show a video about visiting the dentist so they know what to expect, suggests Fransheska Ovalles, D.M.D., a pediatric dentist with Community Health of South Florida. “It’s also a good idea to bring your child to the office a few days in advance for a tour, so they feel more comfortable about being in a new setting,” she says. Arrange a meet-and-greet with the dental team and make sure the dentist comes out to the waiting room to say hello.
Set a positive tone. For many parents, how they feel about taking their child to the dentist may be influenced by their own experiences. “Parents need to remember that they set the emotional tone for the visit,” says Stephens. “If you say to your child ‘Don’t be nervous,’ or ‘Don’t worry, the dentist won’t hurt you,’ it implies there’s a potential to be hurt, and that automatically increases your child’s stress level.”
Prep the patient. For a successful dental procedure, it’s important that both the dentist and parent prepare the child at the previous visit. “At the end of the exam, I explain what I will be doing in simple terms,” says Ovalles. The day of the appointment she uses a “tell-show-do” technique in which she explains what she’s going to do in the simplest terms, demonstrates it and then performs the action. The “show” part, such as mimicking the process of filling a tooth on her rubber glove, allows the child to see up-close what will occur inside their mouth. “This usually turns into a fun experience and they are much more at ease during the procedure,” notes Ovalles.
Choose your words wisely. Avoid scary words like ‘cavities,’ ‘needle’ or ‘filling.’ Pediatric dentists like Ovalles and Stephens prefer ‘sugar bugs,’ ‘sleepy juice’ and ‘tooth paint,’ instead – phrases that create a sense of wonder. Even an extraction can be made to sound fun, not frightening, assures Stephens. He tells young patients he’s going to give them something to make their tooth go to sleep. “Then I say, ‘We’re going to wiggle your tooth and tickle it,’ to make it sound playful. It’s an effective way of engaging them with a story.”
Put the power in their hands. Giving kids a choice helps them feel they have a sense of control in the dentist’s chair. For Stephens, it’s about getting them involved in the process. “If I discover a cavity, I say ‘Guess what? I found some sugar bugs in your tooth. Do you want me to leave them there?’ When they say ‘no,’ I tell them I have a really cool way of getting rid of them.” Kids get to feel involved in the process – and proud once it’s all over.