Building a Good Relationship With Your Child and the Dentist
Recently I took two of my children, ages 2 and 4, to the dentist, and we had a great experience! However, a year ago this wasn't the case. A year ago we were a disaster at the dentist, and I left the office feeling embarrassed and defeated.
Needless to say, this most recent visit was a big win for us. This progress didn't happen out of nowhere though. And since February is National Children's Dental Health Month I thought I share some information and tips on how we were able to navigate this struggle we once had.
When Should I Take My Child To the Dentist for the First Time?
The first question you might be wondering is when you need to start making regular appointments for your child. According to the Academy of Pediatric Dentistry your child should see a pediatric dentist when the first tooth appears, or no later than his/her first birthday. You should then continue to schedule regular check-ups every six months.
Whether you plan to take your child to a specialty pediatric dentist or to your own family dentist, you can always reach out to them and ask how/when they would like to make an appointment for your child.
In my experience, my dentist suggested that my children attend my personal appointments and have their teeth checked at that time. When they turned two we started making them their own appointments, where their teeth were examined and cleaned.
How Can I Make The Best of Their Experience?
Whether you are 40 or 4, the dentist can be a scary place. There are lots of smells, sounds, and unfamiliar faces. Not to mention, allowing other people to prod around in your mouth can make you feel very vulnerable, especially for a young child who has no idea what to expect.
I had a dentist one time explain it to me like this: typically the only experience our children have had with medical offices, or with people wearing scrubs, is when they are at the doctor’s office. Whether at a sick appointment or a check-up, these visits are generally unpleasant because the child might be feeling unwell, receive a shot, or get poked and prodded. So while you might be able to understand that at the dentist office they only check and clean your teeth, your child has no understanding of this. And their past experience at medical offices are generally pretty scary to them.
So, here are a few tips to help ease your child's concerns about the dentist, and help make their appointment go a little smoother.
As I mentioned before I began taking my children to my personal appointments when they were less than a year old. This soft approach made the dentist office more familiar and less scary when it came time for their first visits. And since they were coming with me to my appointment, there was less stress and anxiety in those early appointments.
However, even with that prior introduction, once my children started having their own appointments the anxiety became real. Despite having been to the dentist several times before, the fact that they had to go themselves weighed pretty heavily on their little minds.
Ultimately, “prepping” them for their appointments gave us the best results. As their appointments would get near, I would let them know that they had an appointment coming up, and would give them an exact time of when they could expect to go, such as, “You will have a dentist appointment next week. In seven days we will go to the dentist.” That way they weren’t worrying about it prematurely, but when the time came it didn’t come out of the blue either.
As the day got closer, I would start explaining to them what to expect at their appointment. Books, videos, or episodes of their favorite shows depicting dental visits are all really great tools at explaining the process. Explain to them in detail, and lay out each step of what will happen at their appointment. This method will not only help them better understand it, but will also build trust between you and your child. They know you are telling them the truth and you won’t be surprising them with something unfamiliar to them.
We’ve used this method with my kids for many things, including going to the doctor, getting their flu shots, or even going to the zoo. Explaining the process of something new to them gives them better understanding and expectations. And even in the case of getting their flu shots, though my kids knew they would be experiencing something unpleasant, they knew when and where it was going to happen and felt a little more in control of the situation.
Once at the dentist appointment, I assess their demeanor and proceed appropriately. If they are feeling very brave and ready for it, we jump right in. We don’t dance around the appointment making small talk or being silly, we get going right away, still being gentle and letting them know each step of the process. Sometimes, the more they start looking around at their surroundings the more apprehensive or shy they may become.
On the other hand, if I sense my child is very nervous or being pretty shy, I will start looking around the office and familiarizing them with it. Looking around at the sink, the funny lights, seeing how the chair moves and so on. Dentists and hygienists are usually very good at this tactic as well--they may have even more ideas on how to familiarize or interest your child.
And finally, rewards are an excellent way to help encourage children to be brave during their appointment. My dentist has a special reward box, as I’m sure many others do, that my kids are big fans of. I usually also offer a toy from the store for good behavior as well! Rewarding them with a treat usually seems a little counterintuitive after a dentist appointment, but whatever motivates your kid can sometimes be just the trick you need!
Setting Expectations for Dental Visits
A mistake I often make as a parent is setting or having expectations that are much higher than what is realistic for the situation. Whether it's a place or activity that may seem fun and exciting, or something new that may not seem like a big deal, I’ll often just assume my child won’t have a negative reaction to it. But anything that is new, exhausting, or unfamiliar can often cause our children to have big emotions or reactions.
Even with all the preparation and familiarization with dental offices and visits, our children will likely still feel anxious or scared. And that is ok. The first few independent visits my children had, they never actually had their teeth cleaned. I never forced them to open their mouths or do anything they didn’t want to. I sat by their side and let them know that it was okay if they were feeling nervous, and encouraged them to be brave. Of course if your child has a known issue like a cavity, use your best judgment on how to proceed.
My dentist and I both agree that it is more important for my children to have a good experience and build good rapport than it is to get their teeth cleaned the first few visits. And this has definitely been advantageous, as both of my children have almost completely conquered their fears of the dental exams!
Dental Care Best Practices for Children
Adults and children should brush their teeth twice a day and floss teeth at least once a day. It’s especially important to protect your child’s baby teeth, as they not only help children speak clearly and chew naturally, they also aid in forming a path that permanent teeth can follow when they are ready to erupt. You can start brushing them with an age-appropriate sized toothbrush and tiny amount of toothpaste, as soon as your baby’s first tooth erupts. The amount of toothpaste can be increased to a pea-size when they are 3.
Along with brushing and flossing to prevent tooth-decay and cavities, avoid nursing your baby to sleep once they have teeth, and only allow them to have water in their crib or after they have brushed their teeth.
Should your child bump a tooth or have a toothache, you can help alleviate the pain with a warm salt-water rinse in their mouth or a cold compress on the outside of their mouth if the area is swollen. You can also give them the appropriate dose of children’s Tylenol and contact the dentist as soon as you are able. You should also contact the dentist right away if you notice an abscess, cavity, or if your child cracks or chips a tooth. Finally, if your child happens to knock a permanent tooth out completely you should first find the tooth. Hold it by the crown rather than the root and try to reinsert it in the socket (if the tooth is clean enough to do so). If that is not possible, put the tooth in a glass of milk and take your child and the glass immediately to the dentist.
Going to the dentist can be overwhelming for parents and children alike. Having the right tools can make that experience much more tolerable and maybe even enjoyable. For parents, that might look like having an game plan and knowing how to handle your child’s fear and anxiety about it. For a child, being more informed and prepared for the visit itself will likely calm their worries.
I hope you were able to gain a few tips and tricks that will make your next visit a little more manageable. Who knows, you might even be pleasantly surprised at how well they do!