Dental anxiety is a real thing – approximately 10 to 20 percent of U.S. adults have it – and it can impact not just the state of teeth and gums, but overall health as well. That’s why it’s so important for parents to promote good vibes and stress-free visits to their kids when it comes to the dentist, starting at a young age. The following tips will help ease your child’s trepidations and pave the way to a lifetime of good oral hygiene.
Start young. Kids should see a dentist by the time their first tooth appears and no later than their first birthday. Taking them when they’re still babies is not only beneficial to their dental health, it helps familiarize them with the dental office environment and procedures. Another benefit: When kids start this early, it helps build trust – and a relationship – with their dentist.
Prep them. Play "dentist" at home so they better understand what will happen when they get there – all you need is a toothbrush, a chair and a mirror. Let your child role-play as they examine your teeth and pretend to clean them and vice versa. You can also read them dental storybooks (there are lots of great options to be found on Amazon.com or at the Miami-Dade Public Library System), which outline more of what they can expect.
Visit a pediatric dentist. Pediatric dentists have both specialty training as well as offices that are generally outfitted to appeal to kids, complete with video games, TVs, kid-friendly (read better tasting!) fluorides and often, stickers or small toys for after the visit.
Inform your dentist about your child’s anxieties. Communicating with your dentist prior to your child’s visit puts the office staff on alert, making things smoother for all of you.
Use thoughtful language. Communicate about expectations but avoid words like cavities, needles or filling. Pediatric dentists have a special vocabulary for explaining procedures (like "sleepy juice" and "tooth paint") so leave it to them to answer more complex questions. Similarly, avoid saying "Don’t worry, the dentist won’t hurt you," as that implies that the visit could be painful.
Stay calm. Dentists have seen their fair share of tantrums so don’t be embarrassed if your child lashes out or whines once in the chair. Again, take your cues from the staff, allowing them to guide you on how to make your child comfortable, whether it’s holding their hand, letting them clutch their favorite stuffed animal or reminding them of the small prizes that await them at the reception desk afterward.
Motivate and reward. Small rewards for good behavior help motivate kids to be cooperative. These rewards (i.e., extra time at the park or an inexpensive toy) should be something you discuss beforehand to ensure your child sits still in the chair and listens to the dentist. Whatever you do, don’t bribe with candy or sweets as that defeats the purpose of the dental visit. By bribing, too, you’re buying into the notion that going to the dentist is “bad.”
Set an example. Remember, you are your child’s first teacher and what you say matters. If you complain before and after your own dental appointments, kids get the message that going to the dentist is something to avoid.
Stress the importance of oral care. Make oral hygiene a fun family activity by letting kids select their own toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash (within reason). Let them see you brushing twice a day, flossing, etc. – and enjoying it! The more kids get the message that taking care of their mouths is a positive, healthy habit, the more excited they’ll be to continue taking care of their teeth.
Children’s Trust Senior Program Manager Bevone Ritchie, M.S. in guidance and counseling, oversees a wide range of parenting programs across the county. For more information, visit the childrenstrust.org