Dentistry has made great efforts to improve the previously “scary” reputations that many dentists undeservingly get. Many parents today can think back to times where going to the dentist was one of their greatest fears, and many of the devices used by hygienists looked like archaic torture devices. Thankfully, with the aid of scientific developments, going to the dentist has become much less intimidating and painful than it was some 30 years ago. Even so, many kids still begin to fear the dentist at an early age, even if they haven’t yet had a bad experience or extensive dental work done. Just like adults, children relay information to one another, and many times these irrational fears of the dentist can come from stories they hear from other children or the portrayal of dentists as scary in children’s books and cartoons. This, of course, makes your job as a parent much more difficult, especially because going to the dentist is an important event in early childhood and can prevent major problems down the line.
There are several steps you can take as a parent to help nip the fear of dentists in the bud, but it won’t be easy for some. The reality is a lot of parents don’t like going to the dentist either, whether it’s due to previous bad experiences or general fear that was never alleviated as a child. The first step starts with parents alleviating their own anxieties, and the rest are setting children up to become confident and ready for their checkups.
It’s recommended that parents start stimulating their babies gums as early as infants, getting them used to having their teeth and mouth touched. This can be done by using a sterile warm washcloth, wiping down and massaging their gums. Toddlers can also have their teeth brushed with infant toothbrushes that will get them used to the sensation of having something in their mouths and instruments touching their first baby teeth and gums. The earlier you start your child off with oral hygiene, the less scary it will be when they are faced with their first dental visit. Naturally, sitting in the dentist’s chair can be uncomfortable, especially when they first experience metal instruments being used to prod around, but children who have been prepared with routine brushing and flossing will have a much easier time.
Sometimes parents unknowingly create a bigger fuss out of situations their kids go through and inadvertently give their child anxiety. Children are like sponges and pick up on very subtle cues, especially when it comes to fear. Since your child depends on you for everything, it’s important not to stress out about their first dental appointment and make it more complicated than it has to be. In preparation for their first visit, don’t get too specific or into too many details, as it will build the event up into more than it should be. Keep it very simple and positive, but also don’t tell them that everything will be fine, either. If a child ends up needed some kind of treatment, they may lose faith in the process and feel like they were “let down.” In the case of needing specific treatment, it will be a good opportunity to discuss ways future situations can be prevented, especially when cavities or decay are found.
Avoid Negative Talk
If your child expresses concerns about their dentist visit, avoid being the first one to mention words like “pain,” “shot,” “hurt,” or other words that are generally negative. This is also a way to allow dentists to be the ones to introduce your child to dental vocabulary that can be much more productive. Instead of using words that involve negative connotation, use silly or non-threatening terms like “clean,” “healthy,” “strong,” and other positive options. There is no need to lie to your child about what it means to go to their checkup, but putting a positive spin on your description of the process can make it less scary and more encouraging.
Use Visual Aids
There are tons of great children’s books available for purchase or check-out at the library that help explain dentistry and the role of a dentist to your child. They use colorful imagery that is ideal for a child’s imagination and can help them become more comfortable with the idea. Even if they’ve already had their first visit, these books can be encouraging to help them take good care of their teeth and brush properly as well.
Do a Dry Run
Speak with your pediatric dentist about doing a tour of the office with your child before their first checkup. This can greatly reduce stress and fussing that may come from the overwhelming fear some children may experience before going to get their teeth checked. These tours are informative but also fun for kids as they don’t have to experience the dentist in any “scary” way their first time. They can become acquainted with the dentist and staff, as well as the office, so when their real appointment comes along, they will feel like they know what they are walking into.
Prepare to React
It’s a good idea to prepare yourself for some negative reactions. Knowing how to deal with your child fussing at the dentist can also prepare you for their first visit, as some parents can develop their own anxieties over it. It’s completely normal for some children to cry or whine before, during, and after their first dental visit, and it’s important to not punish them harshly for their negative feelings. Doing so could enforce their initial fears surrounding the dentist as well. Take some guidance from pediatric dental professionals, as they deal with children in their offices every day and may have picked up some tricks along the way. If a tantrum occurs, be prepared to deal with it calmly and depending on what the dentist suggests, you will want to either distance yourself from the child during that time or come aid the dentist in holding their hand to prevent them reaching and grabbing utensils.
A dental appointment can be stressful for children and adults, but approaching the matter in a calm and collected way can usually ease the tensions that surround it. Make sure to avoid any kind of bribery or promises of special treats to get your child to go to the dentist as this method can usually encourage manipulative behavior resulting in tantrums or bad behavior. Emphasize how important health and strong teeth are and get your child comfortable with seeing the dentist as early as possible.