Most of us have bad memories of pain and discomfort from our childhood dental visits. The chair was intimidating, the tools made scary noises, and we had to hold our mouths open for so long our jaws hurt. Or at least mine did, since I was prone to cavities. I still get anxious going to the dentist; so much so that when I went two weeks ago to get a crown fitted, they asked me if I needed the laughing gas to help relax me. I did.
So now that I’m a mom and have to take my own kids to the dentist, I’m determined to help them realize that it’s not a place to fear. I’ll do everything I can from my mommy perspective to make the chair fun, the instruments interesting, and to prepare my child so she can be excited to go.
Here are 10 suggestions on how to make the dentist office seem less intimidating that have worked for my kids:
Read them books about going to the dentist long before they actually go. Toddlers love books and the cartoony look will help them focus on how not scary the office is. Once you’re at the dentist, remind your child of the storyline. Maybe Annie from the book saw that sucker tool and you can point it out in real life to your kid and tell her she’s just like Annie!
Practice at home so your kid knows what to expect. You’ve been to the dentist before, right? You know pretty much how the appointment will go. So pretend like you are the Dentist and practice checking teeth before you go! Let your kid take the Dentist role and let them check your teeth. Those first few visits while they are so young are mostly just looking around in the mouth and maybe scraping some plaque if they see it and if the kid will let them. Practicing that at home will make the real deal more familiar and less scary.
Go to a pediatric dental office. There are many offices where the staff is specifically trained to work on kids’ teeth. These offices often work better for toddlers because not only are they decorated more kid-friendly (bright colors, cartoon characters, toys, etc.) but they also have smaller tools that fit a child’s mouth better than our adult ones.
Watch what you say (avoid being negative). Just as I’ve tried hard to not to be negative about my body image in front of my children, I need to work just as hard to not talk in front of them about how uneasy I still get at the dentist. If you look worried/anxious and if you say things like, “Mommy really doesn’t want to go to the dentist now,” your kids will pick up on that and act similarly. They trust you, so when they see how scared you are, they associate the dentist with something that must be really bad. Instead, change that self-talk to, “This will be a great visit because I’ve been brushing the Sugar Bugs off my teeth!” Make it light.
Let them bring their favorite stuffed animal or comfort object. Most dental hygienists are great at interacting with kids; they don’t want kids scared of getting their teeth checked, either! They will probably ask your kid if they can check Mr. Bear’s teeth first and your kid will love it! That one action alone will help your child trust the hygienist and be more willing to open up.
Distract them if they start feeling anxious. If sounds scare your child easily, bring ear buds and have them listen to music or give them noise-cancelling headphones. If your child likes to fiddle with something in their hands to calm down, give them a stress ball to squeeze. If the overhead light is too bright or intimidating, give your kid some sunglasses and play up how cool they look, or pretend they are glasses that make the child invisible! Read a story to your child while they are being worked on so they have something else to think about. Avoid giving your child a show on your phone because that will just cause them to turn their heads away and zone out, not opening their mouths when asked to.
Until you see signs of anxiousness, back off and let them be brave. Too often we parents will jump in at the slightest hint of discomfort or struggle in our child. That tool sounds scary to me so it must be scary to my baby girl, right? Not necessarily. We need to give our kids a chance to be brave for themselves, instead of assuming they will freak out at any moment. When I backed off and stayed silent at my daughter’s appointment a few weeks ago, she was able to ask her questions and figure out for herself that there was nothing to worry about. Only at one point did she not want to open her mouth and looked wary, so that’s when I stepped in to provide comfort.
Remember that slow work is better than no work at all. This suggestion comes from Buildinggreatsmiles.com: It’s okay if your child needs to take frequent breaks. Don’t stress if your child’s appointment is taking longer than someone else’s would. The staff at your office knows kids can be unpredictable so chances are, they have allotted more time for your kid’s appointment so don’t worry about running over. Just let your kid and the Hygienist/Dentist go at their own paces.
Afterwards, don’t reward good behavior with sugar! I’m all for selective bribery in many parental circumstances, this one included. So I have no problem promising my daughter we can go to the library or have a play date after the dentist visit if it helps her want to behave during it. But it will defeat the point of the trip if you promise to go get ice cream or candy if they behave. Teach them good dental habits!
Teach them good dental habits. The key to avoiding the big, scary dental procedures is prevention. Start teaching early, using just your finger and water even before they have teeth! Teach your toddler how to brush and floss their teeth but don’t walk away and assume your 4 year old is doing a good enough job. Still help him or her floss and brush, making sure to get all the trickier spots. Get a timer for your bathroom so they (or you) don’t cut the brushing short. Make brushing at least twice a day be as routine and expected as washing their hands after using the toilet.
What other tips would you give to parents about to take their child to the dentist?