15 Clever Ideas for Helping Your Child Visit the Dentist

Taking children to the dentist can be stressful. But there are ways to make dental appointments less scary. Read these clever ideas to avoid tears and tantrums. 

child dental appointment

Photo from makelessnoise on Flickr.

As parents, we are used to soothing grazed knees and unravelling fears and phobias. Yet, what happens if a child is frightened of something that we have also come to fear? How do you go about teaching your little one that some fears simply have to be conquered, if you are having trouble doing so yourself?

Take a fear of the dentist, for example. Clearly, this represents an unhealthy anxiety and one which has the potential to cause serious health problems if not defeated. So, every parent wants to be able to take their child to the dentist for check-up appointments and routine procedures.

The reality is that this can be difficult for parents who spend a lot of time worrying about their own dentist appointments. This is why the health of infant teeth always starts at home. If you do not keep to a proper brushing schedule and maintain the health of your teeth, as recommended by your dental professional, it will impossible to convince children to do so too.

They lead by example, so give them a good one and start teaching them about good dental health and hygiene from an early age – in fact, as early as is appropriate. For most children, this is around 3-4 years, because this is when most infants first begin to make an intellectual connection between their actions and their bodies.

Why Good Dental Health Always Starts at Home

If you have a child who is around this age and you are confident of their ability to learn and understand about the dentist, start to teach them about how important their teeth are. This does not have to be an intensive ‘sit down’ lecture. You just have to incorporate learning into the daily routine. While you are helping them to brush their teeth before school, talk about why doing so is important.

Ask your child for their opinion, by posing questions. For instance, ask them what they think their teeth are made out of. Ask them why they think brushing is special and what kinds of things they can do to keep their teeth strong. It is recommended that a child have their first dental appointment between the ages of 1-6 months, soon after the first baby tooth has emerged.

However, a child of this age is simply not going to understand why they are in the dentist chair or what is happening, so it is not really of any use to try and teach an infant about dental health before this point. For very young babies and toddlers, it is all about distraction and maintaining a calm atmosphere, so that the little one does not pick up on any negativity and panic.

As a child starts to get older, you really do need to pull more out of the bag than a cuddly toy or a peekaboo face. In fact, as a child ages and starts to understand more about what is happening, distraction techniques can actually do more harm than good. As aforementioned, if you are open and honest about what is happening and why it needs to happen, children can be encouraged to start taking responsibility for their own teeth.

These handy tips and tricks will help you to get your child to the dentist with as little stress and fear as possible.

  1. Start Dental Visits Early

This is the piece of advice that can make all the difference to how easy your child finds dental appointments. While sitting in that chair will always feel strange and unnerving in many ways – it still does for parents – the more common it is, the less anxiety it will provoke. This is why it is important to follow the recommendation of dentists everywhere and start routine check-ups from around 3-6 months.

If your child is five or six and, suddenly, you introduce this strange new world of white rooms, funny smells, and probing hands, it is bound to be scary. But, if your little one grows up with memories of visiting for routine appointments, it is just going to feel like a normal part of life. Do not forget that the success of this advice starts with you. Your child needs to see that this is a normal and regular part of your life too, so do not shirk your own appointments.  

  1. Take a Fun Tour of the Office

The stereotype of the stern dentist, with the indelicate fingers and sharp tongue, is extremely outdated. These days, dental specialists go to great lengths to make patients (of all ages and sizes) feel comfortable in the chair. They are not there to lecture, only to educate and help you make the right decisions. So, do not be afraid to talk to your dental specialist.

The majority of dentists are eager to help parents and educators dispel the mystery around dental appointments. It is common for nurseries and pre-schools to take trips to dentist surgeries, in order to get a look at the tools, talk to the nurses, learn about dental hygiene, and get further acquainted with this kind of clinical environment. If this does not happen at your child’s pre-school, ask your local surgery if there is any chance of a quick tour.

  1. Steer Clear of Negative Words

This can be a tricky thing to do, because most parents speak about the dentist in a very specific way. You might not even realise that you are doing it, but if you have a tendency to describe the dentist using negative words, stop. This is particularly important for ‘H’ (hurt) and ‘P’ (pain) words. Also, try to avoid terms like ‘shot,’ especially if your child has had a stressful experience with needles in the past. The trick is not to lie to a child, but to do all that you can from colouring their experience before it has occurred.

The best example of this can be found when babies and toddlers fall down. In the vast majority of cases, a baby only starts to cry once its parents have rushed to the rescue and made it clear that a bad thing has happened. If you do not worry, fuss, or stress about the child, they will usually just get up and carry on. This is what happens if a child hears a parent constantly talk about the dentist as a scary, painful, and daunting experience. Even if their own visit is routine and involves little probing and no pain, they are likely to panic anyway.

  1. Play Pretend Dentist at Home  

As you can see, many of these tips and tricks do not have to involve the actual dentist at all. This is what it means to start dental education at home, as early as possible. The dentist office is a strange place. The noises are unusual, the grown-ups are dressed funny, and the smells are not like anything experienced at home or school. This is why it is vital to get a child acquainted with some of the little details common to dental appointments. If you can make the experience fun, go ahead and do so.

Why not buy a small dental mirror online and play ‘pretend’ dentist with your child? Give them the mirror and the ‘counting stick’ and ask them to count your teeth. Encourage them to give an opinion on the health of your mouth too. If you have fillings, make it clear that these are to be avoided, but you must explain why. If you are going to educate a child about dental procedures, it is important to explain in a way which does not introduce fear. Yes, fillings are for naughty teeth, but sometimes they are necessary.

  1. Avoid Resorting to Bribes

Again, this can be difficult, but bribing your child as a way to get them to comply with dental appointments will only reinforce the idea that check-ups are a bad and scary thing. You need to be sticking rigidly to the notion that a check-up is just no big deal. It happens every now and then. It is usually pretty fast and there is nothing to worry about. It is especially important to avoid bribery with candy or fizzy drinks, for obvious reasons.

On the other hand, it is okay (and encouraged) for parents to naturally introduce a treat or reward for after the appointment. The best way to do this is, again, make no ceremony or pomp about it. If your child always behaves well at the dentist and routinely gets a treat or is taken somewhere fun afterwards, they will naturally start to associate this with good performance. After a while, the two experiences will become intermingled and just a mere mention of the dentist will trigger positive emotions.

  1. Remember to Eat Beforehand

It is common for parents to withhold food until after the dentist, both for the sake of convenience and because it makes it easy to say ‘We’ll go for snacks if you sit nicely and do as you are told.’ This is a bad idea, however, because nothing makes a little one grouchier than an empty stomach. While it is a good idea to stick to light foods, just in case there is any queasiness or stomach ache, don’t be afraid to feed your child before an appointment.

Again, avoid fizzy drinks and candy because this only creates a conflicting message. If you let your child drink soda right before an appointment and then the dentist starts talking about how damaging it is, they will get confused. If your child is scheduled to have a dental procedure and you are not sure whether they should eat beforehand, ask your dentist for advice.

  1. Try Not to Give Empty Promises

It is not easy for parents to watch children get scared or panic during a dental appointment. If a parent has their own fear of the dentist, they can be tempted to provide too much emotional comfort, even before the appointment has happened. All that this does is reinforce ideas about check-ups being bad and scary, so do try to keep your personal responses practical and sensible. Wherever possible, be open and honest with your child.

This is tricky, but it will do your child the world of good. What it does not mean is talk about pain or hurt or describe gory dental procedures. What it does mean is avoiding direct lies and empty promises. So again, if your child is not talking about pain or asking if the visit to the dentist will hurt, there is no reason for you to introduce this fear at all. If it is not something that your little one is worried about, there is simply need to say whether it will or will not hurt.

  1. Give Them Some Control Back

As parents, we tend to forget how terrifying it must be to be a child, subject to all of the confusing and bewildering whims of grown-ups. This is especially true at the dentist. They are ushered from this waiting room to this chair. They are instructed to sit still and say ‘Aaaah’ and ‘be a good boy.’ Ultimately, even the amount of orders given can be daunting for a little one. However, you can alleviate the stress by giving your child some control in the littlest of ways.

For instance, try to avoid things like pulling your child into the appointment room when their name is called. Instead, while you wait, explain what will happen and let them listen for their own name. When it is called, let them inform you themselves. Trust that, as they are a big boy or girl, they know what to do when this happens. Let your child lead the way into the appointment room, if they are confident enough to do so. If they are feeling really chirpy, you can even encourage them to shake hands with the dentist.

  1. Overlook Comfort Objects and Toys

Even if you generally try to avoid carting things like comfort blankets and toys around with you whilst away from home, it is important to acknowledge that they can be really useful in times of stress or anxiety. You do not have to make a big deal out of it, just allow your child to hold on to whatever item or object makes them feel happy if they express a need for it.

In fact, for older children, things like picture books and portable games consoles, while generally discouraged in other social situations, can provide an excellent remedy for probing fingers and even shots. However, do not allow your child to take anything into the surgery that is going to make accessing their mouth even harder. Turning their attention away is fine, but toys which are overly big or bulky are just going to get in the way.

  1. Dress Your Child Comfortably

There are a lot of parents who worry about their children looking too casual or shabby for a dental appointment. As this is a fairly formal and quite rare occasion, it can be tempting to dress your little one up a bit. However, you are advised to keep things as loose and casual as possible. The more physically comfortable your child feels, the easier it will be to speed through the appointment and get a sticker and a word of praise afterwards.

So, think loose materials and nothing too restrictive. If your child is heading to the dentist straight after school, do not get too worked up about tucked in shirts or tidy jumpers. The dental specialist really does not mind how your little one is dressed, so long as they are comfortable, happy, and willing to let them get the job done without stress and fuss. In other words, just try not to fuss or get too flustered yourself, because they will pick up on it.

  1. Stay in the Room at All Times

Your presence, even without soothing words or one on one attention, will naturally put your child at ease. It takes only a second of absence to instil fear – just think about how quickly some children panic if they lose sight of their parent in a supermarket – so be a source of comfort simply by staying put. It can also help to keep talking. You have noticed that dental specialists are fond of chatting, even while performing procedures.

This is because too much empty silence is unnerving. So, even if your child cannot see you (you may be sat behind the chair or their head may be tilted), reassure them of your presence by keeping up a conversation with both them and the dentist. This is should be easy to do, because you dental specialist is likely to be quite the expert in the art of small talk.

  1. Explain the Importance of Touch

This can be one of the most difficult aspects of the dentist to explain to a child. There are lots of educational picture books designed to teach little ones that it is okay for a dental health specialist to physically touch their mouths. And, of course, this is fine, but it is extremely important that you pick your wording carefully here. For a lot parents, simply saying that it is okay for the man or lady to touch you is, for obvious reasons, not very helpful.

So, explain to your child that contact will be made. This is essential, because they need to know to expect an examination and that it is nothing to panic about. Yet, they must also know that this is a special situation and that a dentist is the only stranger qualified to do this. It is entirely up to you how you give this lesson, it is just worth remembering that some educational resources (especially picture books) do not make the distinction between safe and unsafe contact from an adult.

  1. Invent a ‘Safety Signal’

Once again, the trick to getting a child to cope with the strangeness of the dentist is simply to avoid stress, panic, and fear from as early an age as possible. The easiest way to do this is through communication. So, as already mentioned, avoid using negative words and associations. The minutes that you introduce words like ‘pain,’ ‘hurt,’ or ‘cry,’ you legitimise them and make them an expected part of the experience.

If you are worried that your child might get frightened and panic while in the dentist chair, particularly when they are with their mouth open and feeling vulnerable, talk to them beforehand and come up with a ‘safety signal.’ This should be something very simple, preferably using the hands, because talking may be difficult during examinations. Let your child know that if they give you this signal, you will tell the dentist to briefly step away and allow them a few moments to carry out deep breathing, hold your hand, or squeeze a cuddly toy.

  1. Stay Calm and Relaxed

In many ways, this is the single most important piece of advice, because children take all of their emotional cues from their parents. If your child is unsure about whether or not a visit to the dentist is supposed to be frightening, your responses will be their guide. If you are pacing the room, casting worried glances at the dentist, or turning away during the examination, your child will instantly pick up on your anxiety.

In fact, parental fears can be so damaging for children, especially in this situation, that if you have an actual phobia of the dentist, it is probably best to get somebody else to accompany your child to appointments. Remember that you are trying to do what is best for them and that your own neuroses are not relevant to their experience. This can be an emotional challenge, but it really is the best thing for the health of your child’s teeth and mouth.

  1. Seek the Help of a Child Specialist

If you have tried all of the tips and tricks listed above and you still have problems getting your child to sit through stress free dental appointments, it could be time to consult a paediatric specialist. This is usually a last resort, because they are in high demand and waiting lists can be very long. However, they are trained to deal with infant fears, phobias, and behaviour problems. They are a common choice for children with learning difficulties, behavioural issues, and social conditions like autism.

If you work with a paediatric dentist, you are likely to have longer appointments, a more personalised approach, and a much more familiar relationship with the family specialist. The downside is that appointments and procedures at these surgeries can be costly and they make routine check-ups much more of an ‘event.’ Sometimes, however, they are the only suitable choice for children who cannot handle the regular dental environment.  

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