It is pretty common for children to be afraid of a visit to the dentist. The noises, the tastes, the chair that moves unexpectedly. All of these can be really upsetting to any child. Add in developmental issues, and a visit to the dentist can be a real challenge. However, you can plan a successful visit to the dentist.
We have had our share of dental challenges: refusing to brush teeth as a toddler and protesting loudly when it’s time to climb into the dentist’s chair. Maybe you have a child who chews on the toothbrush and clamps down too. Maybe the site of the dental building is even to make your child meltdown.
Going to the dentist is a common struggle for families. I have several practical tips to make a visit to the dentist more pleasant for everyone. You can have a successful visit to the dentist.
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Define Your Goals for A Successful Visit
Before you even talk to your child about the dentist or look for a dentist for you child, take a moment to consider what your goals are for your child’s next dental visit.
It’s not realistic to assume your child who meltdowns down at the dentist’s front door will sit for a full cleaning. So think of a very achievable goal for your child.
Based on your child’s past experiences, possible goals could include:
- entering the dental building
- sitting in the chair
- opening mouth briefly for hygienist
- allowing the hygienist to clean a few teeth with a soft toothbrush
- allowing a full cleaning
- taking x-rays
- allowing dentist to count teeth
- allowing dentist to apply treatment
Any of these goals are reasonable for your child. There is no progress too small. All progress gets you closer to your child having a healthy smile.
When my daughter was three, sitting in the dental chair in my lap for any amount of time was a victory. At five years old, she sat for the first time independently. By six years old, she allowed the hygienist to briefly brush her teeth. All these things are victories for our family and we would celebrate the new success each time.
What if my Child is Terrified of the Dentist?
If your child is terrified or even just reluctant to go to the dentist, the first thing you should do is ask your child why he or she doesn’t want to go to the dentist. If you think your child is just stubborn or uncooperative, it’s time to dig a little deeper. It’s always best to assume lack of skill over lack of will.
Even for my readers with very young children, speech-delayed children, or children with other developmental or neurological differences, don’t underestimating the value of asking your child to figure out why your child is scared. Asking our children even when we don’t believe they have the ability to answer us is another way of recognizing their inherent dignity and value.
Try to hone in on your child’s concern: is it the fear of the instruments, the tastes or noises, he or she doesn’t like sitting still, or he or she doesn’t know what will happen? If you can get some better information from your child, it will help you be strategic about how to approach the problem.
You might want to avoid using words like hurt, pain, or cavity in case those will increase your child’s anxiety.
Prepare Your Child for the Dentist
It can be really helpful to read books or watch shows about the dentist with your child.
We like Sesame Street Ready, Set, Brush! A Pop-Up Book. It has a pretend cardboard toothbrush inside and the children can pretend to brush the monsters’ teeth.
My daughter also appreciated the life like photos in this book: A Trip to the Dentist (DK Readers Level 1). It gave her a concise idea of what would happen at her dentist.
My daughter became very motivated to brush thoroughly and visit the dentist after she watched the Sid the Science Kid (TV Series): A Brush with Teeth (episode 16). This show is available to watch for free with Amazon Prime TV or you can purchase the video for $0.99 (at the time of publishing).
You can also use the printable visual schedule I’ve created. This chart outlines the steps that will happen at the dentist.
Find the Right Dentist
After you’ve defined your goals and prepared your child with books or shows, it’s time to schedule your appointment. While you might be tempted to take your child to your own dental practice for adults, a lot of pediatric dentists are just better equipped to deal with children’s anxiety.
Pediatric dentists have additional training with children and can better handle any unique needs your child has.
Ask for recommendations in a local parents Facebook group for pediatric dentists. You can also call your insurance company for a list of approved pediatric dentists and do research online for those providers.
Then call and ask if they accommodate your concern.:
- My child is afraid of the noises. How can you handle that?
- My child doesn’t like things in his mouth. How can you handle that?
- My child won’t tolerate tooth brushing well. How do you deal with that?
If you’re not satisfied with the answer, you can either ask the receptionist to actually speak with a dentist or you can move onto another provider.
When you schedule your first visit, also ask if your child and you can stop by and check it out briefly sometime before the appointment.
Last, don’t be afraid to try a new dentist. We had so much success once we switched to the pediatric dentist who is the right fit for our family.
Happy Visits to the Dentist
Another important question to ask when finding a pediatric dentist is whether they have Happy Visits. Many dental practices recognize the value of Happy Visits for children.
At a Happy Visit, the child is simply developing comfort in the office around the equipment. How it is specifically implemented varies by practice but generally it is just a brief, fun visit to build a positive relationship with the dentist, the staff, and the environment.
At our dental practice, our daughter starts by playing in the waiting area. Then she sits in the chair and takes a ride as it’s reclined. Next she’ll practice opening wide and maybe let the hygienist or dentist sneak a quick peek in her mouth. Last, she gets tons of praise, a new toothbrush, a balloon, and a prize.
Happy Visits were effective in building tolerance for my daughter. Since we went every two months to build rapport, the exposure dramatically reduced her anxiety while increasing her confidence and trust.
Find out if the dentist you’ve selected does Happy Visits – if they don’t and you have an anxious child or a child with a unique developmental need, you might want to reconsider your dentist.
The Right Tools for a Visit to the Dentist
Thinking about all the sensory demands at the dentist: the bright lights, the loud noises, the tastes and sensations of brushing. Go to the dental visit equipped with the right tools for your child like sunglasses and headphones.
If you child has a special stuffed animal or blanket – take it!
Also consider calling ahead and asking for an appointment at the quietest time of day where your child won’t be disturbed by other children or sounds of other equipment.
It is also reasonable to ask for an accommodation about the the taste of the dental products and the sensation of brushing and polishing.
Dentist Visual Schedule Printable
Next I like to place the visual schedule on a clipboard. Then my child can check it off each step at the dentist with a dry erase marker. (Side note: use washable markers and save time and money on laundry stains).
Feel free to cut off the parts of the schedule you don’t need. Let’s say your goal is to just get your child through step 5: I open my mouth. Go ahead and cut off the other parts.
Recapping a Successful Visit to the Dentist
Here’s the bullets for all you busy parents.
You can plan a successful trip to the dentist. Figure out your goals and your child’s concern, find a pediatric dentist who will listen to your concerns, and use the printable visual schedule. With a few steps, you’re on your way to a successful visit to the dentist.