How to Help a Child Who’s Scared of the Dentist

Your child’s next dental appointment is bound to go smoothly if you follow these tested tips on prepping for and getting through the visit.
Going to the dentist, as we all know, is an important part of keeping our kids’ mouths healthy. Still, it typically doesn’t rank very high on any parent or child’s “want-to-do” list. Being asked to sit still — often tipped back in a big chair — with a bright light in their eyes and someone poking around in their mouth can rattle even the calmest of kids.

At my now 6-year-old son Brady’s first checkup, he happily climbed onto my lap in the exam chair and opened wide. He was perfectly at ease — until the hygienist began to recline the chair. As the chair moved, Brady began to squirm and whimper. At that, his older sister — who had just sailed through her own exam without a tear or complaint — began to cry and yell, “Stop! Leave him alone! Don’t hurt my brother!” which, of course, made Brady wail louder. By the time the exam was over, the idea of getting a root canal was more appealing than the thought of bringing my kids back for their next checkup. Fortunately, as my kids have learned what to expect and developed a good relationship with their dentist and her staff, appointments have gotten much easier. Their biggest concern these days: which two trinkets to choose from the “prize box” at their end of their visit.

Whether your child is mildly nervous or seriously afraid, try these strategies to make visiting the dentist a more positive experience.

Opt for a pediatric dentist. You may be happy with your dentist but a practitioner who specializes in treating kids and adolescents brings extra expertise and experience to the table. Pediatric dentists have an extra two to three years of training beyond dental school so they are experts at managing fearful young patients. In addition, their offices are designed to be kid-friendly. Even little things like outfitting kids with sunglasses to combat the brightness of the lights during an exam or having stuffed animals available for squeezing can help calm nerves.

Start early. The AAPD recommends scheduling your child’s first visit as soon as teeth begin to appear or by his first birthday. “An excellent way to minimize anxiety for children is to start regular dental visits before a problem like a cavity develops,” says Edward H. Moody, Jr., D.D.S., vice president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and a pediatric dentist in Morristown, Tennessee. The benefits of early and regular dental care are two-fold: Your child gets into the routine of seeing the dentist while he’s still young (and possibly less nervous) and staying on top of any potential problems can cut his chances of needing extensive (ouch!) dental treatment down the line.

Do a meet and greet. Did you know that you can bring your child to the dentist’s office to get acquainted before the day of their actual checkup? “If kids — or parents — are nervous I always recommend that they visit the office prior to their appointment so they can meet the staff, see where they’ll sit and find out what to expect during the exam,” says Lezli Levene Harvell, D.M.D., a board-certified pediatric dentist in Newark, New Jersey, and mother of five who has treated her fair share of reluctant patients. “Coming to the dentist can be a bit of an overload. By visiting first kids can get acclimated and come back another day knowing what to expect. It’s a great tool that is completely underutilized.”

Get a little bit closer. Having a parent’s hand to hold or lap to sit on while getting their teeth checked out can be a big comfort for kids. “Sometimes I’ll have nervous kids lay on Mom’s lap while I count Mom’s teeth and then the child’s,” says Dr. Levene Harvell. “A child on Mom’s lap instead of sitting alone can be like night and day.”

But don’t do too much talking. Yes, it’s tempting to maintain a steady stream of chatter in hopes of distracting your child from the exam (I’ve been guilty of this!), but resist. Letting the dentist do the talking will help him develop a better rapport with your child, say the experts at the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Have questions? Speak to the dentist after he completes the exam.

Consider scheduling your child’s appointments with the same hygienist each time. Often that’s the pro who handles a large part of a routine checkup. I’ve found that always having my kids’ cleanings done by their favorite hygienist, Denise, makes the appointments go more smoothly. “For younger children or those who tend to be uneasy around new people or things, seeing the same hygienist may be help build a sense of trust and make the visit more relaxing,” notes Dr. Moody.

Take it slow with kids prone to gagging. “Children often have a fear that they’re going to gag and choke but it’s usually more of a psychological problem than a physical issue,” says Dr. Moody. “When a dentist goes slowly, is patient, and provides positive encouragement as a child gets used to having her teeth cleaned and examined, it lets her gradually understand that there is no real cause for concern.” For kids who are sensitive to gagging, x-rays can be hard because the small film tabs have to be inserted pretty far back in the mouth. Dr. Levene Harvell’s advice: Ask the dentist if x-rays are necessary at that visit. Sometimes they can be skipped.

Make the most of distraction. Many dentists’ offices have TV screens playing kid-friendly shows or videos mounted near the exam chair to attract kids’ attention. Another option: Ask your child’s dentist if she can use your smartphone or MP3 player. Popping in the earbuds and listening to favorite tunes or a book on tape can help take the focus off the dental procedure.

Forget your own dental demons. If you dread the dentist, your child can pick up on your feelings. “Many parents have their own horror stories,” says Dr. Levene Harvell. “When they come in and see that our office is nice and friendly, that can calm the parent down, which makes the child calmer too.”

Run interference if siblings or friends tell scary dentist stories. Is the kid next door detailing the time his dentist yanked on his tooth so hard people could hear him scream from blocks away? Put the kibosh on those types of tales as quickly as possible.

Don’t say, ‘Don’t worry. It won’t hurt.'” Of course you mean to reassure your child but his mind is going to zero in on the word hurt. Checkups and 90 percent of first visits are nearly always pain-free, so steer clear of that concept entirely, recommends the AAPD.

This article was First published on by Kristen Finello.

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