To many of us, going to the dentist has become a routine event. However, for children (and frankly for some adults), it can be very scary. Your child may be worried that it will hurt or they may just be frightened of the unknown. Both are perfectly normal.
Dental anxiety in kids is a real concern, as it can lead to poor oral health, as well as the underuse of dental care and good oral hygiene habits. That’s why dental phobia in kids is something that you can’t take lightly, and needs handled correctly by the right compassionate, caring dental professional.
Symptoms of Dental Anxiety in Children
You’ll know if your little one is panicking at the dentist, as they’ll suffer from some, or perhaps all, of the following:
- Shaking / trembling
- Fainting / dizziness
- Rapid heartbeat
- Having tantrums
- Becoming very quiet
- Becoming very talkative
Children tend to express their fear of going to the dentist in various ways – some may cry, whereas others will fly off into a tantrum.
Prevalence of Dental Phobia in Kids
If your child experiences any of the above signs at the dentist (or even before their dental appointment), you can be comforted in the knowledge that your child is not alone in their dental anxiety.
As many as 19.5 percent of children have some form of dental anxiety, according to statistics from Dentistry Today. In addition to this, a recent article published in the European Journal of Dentistry on children’s attitudes and feelings towards their dentists reported that of the 583 nine to 12-year-olds questioned, 12 percent of those who had already visited the dentist revealed that they were frightened.
Taking your child to the dentist is, of course, necessary to ensure that their dental health remains good and that they develop excellent oral hygiene habits. However, if your child is afraid of going to the dentist, fear not! There are many ways — and we’ve included 16 below — that you can allay those anxieties, and even make visiting the dentist an enjoyable experience for your child.
Before we go into the 16 ways to help ease your child’s fear of the dentist, it’s important to understand the role your dentist plays in your child’s dental care and what to look for when choosing a dentist.
What to Look for in a Dentist
The dentist you choose is the person your child essentially bases their entire experience and opinion of dentists on. It is therefore crucial that you look at the following information and know how to find the right dentist for your little one.
Factors to consider when choosing the dentist for your child include:
Positive Online Reviews and Reputation:
One of the most important factors in choosing a dentist for your child is their reputation. Today, you can find online dental reviews on websites such as Angie’s List, Best Local Reviews, and Healthgrades that can help you feel confident in your choice.
The Location of the Dentist:
Ensure you choose a dentist that’s close to your home, as this makes it easier for you to schedule visits, including emergency dental care.
Your Insurance is Accepted:
Apart from their skills and reputation, one of the most relevant aspects of choosing a dentist is finding one that accepts your insurance. It’s also important to check that the dentist accepts major credit card payments.
Ease and Availability of Appointment Scheduling:
It may sound obvious, but it’s practical to join a dental practice that’s open when you’re able to schedule an appointment. In addition, look to see if the dental office provides a patient reach portal to make it easier to keep track of your child’s dental appointments and care.
If Emergency Dental Care is Offered
You should be able to call after business hours and speak to someone who can help.
The Dentist’s Education and Experience:
Call the dental practice or review its website to learn where the dentist graduated, how long they’ve been practicing and what type of dentistry they’re involved in. Learning about the other staff members, such as the experience of the dental hygienist, is something you may also be interested in.
If the Dentist is Licensed:
Check out your state dental board website to make sure your chosen dentist is licensed. In addition, if the dental practice has an oral surgeon or endodontist on staff, then you won’t have to spend time seeking out your own referral.
It’s essential that you take the time to find the right dentist for your child well in advance of when you think you’ll need them. Don’t wait until there’s an emergency if possible.
Your Dentist’s Role in Your Child’s Dental Care and Fear
Once you’ve chosen your dentist, it’s paramount to check and see if your child feels comfortable with them. Are your child and the dentist able to establish a rapport with one another? You need to find a dentist that you and your child can both comfortably talk to, and who can help your child get over their fears.
A good dentist uses some of the following techniques to ease your child’s fears:
- They’ll explain procedures using simple, neutral language, perhaps even demonstrating them on a doll — or even on you!
- They’ll speak in a friendly tone, becoming a little firmer if need be.
- They might tell stories or share funny anecdotes to draw your little one’s attention away from what’s happening in the dental chair.
- They’ll complement your child on their behavior when they’re being good, and will use positive body language to reinforce this.
- They’ll ask about your child’s favorite toys, activities or interests.
- They may offer your child sedation, if they’re particularly stressed.
If your chosen dentist is not taking some of these steps to help allay your child’s fears, or isn’t handling your child’s anxiety well, you should never be worried about calling a halt to the treatments, and perhaps finding a new dentist who’s more understanding and helpful.
15 Ways You Can Help Ease Your Child’s Fear of the Dentist
Now that you know the role the dentist plays in easing your child’s dental fears and what to look for when choosing a dentist for your child, it’s time to learn about some things that you can do, as a parent, to help alleviate your child’s dental phobia.
It helps tremendously when both the dentist and parent work together to make the dental visit go as smoothly as possible. With all of this in mind, we’ve provided 16 tips that you can implement to help your child face and conquer their dental fears.
1) Start at a Young Age
Get your child used to visiting the dentist from a young age. This way they’ll see it as a regular part of their life into their future. Starting dental care when your child is young ensures that the dentist will catch any potential problems sooner rather than later.
The National Institutes of Health recommend arranging your child’s first dental visit around the time between when their first tooth appears and the time when all of their primary teeth are viewable. This is typically before your child is 2 ½ years old.
Be sure to praise their participation through every step of the process — from getting ready to go to their first appointment to the dental visit itself to their own dental hygiene habits.
2) Choose a Family Dentist Who has Lots of Experience with Children
Look for a dentist who offers comprehensive and complete family dental services, as that dentist will be able to look after you and your children throughout your lives. It also means that the dentist has a higher likelihood of having depth of experience in dealing with children’s dental needs (and phobias).
It’s also very important to choose a dentist who offers emergency dental services, should your child need urgent dental care. With this in mind, you should always ask any prospective new dentist what they offer for comfort — for example, sedation for nervous patients, either oral, or intravenous or nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
3) Provide Your Child with Information
Kids do best when they know what to expect and when their lives are predictable. It’s a good idea to let your child know what to expect in advance when they’re going to the dentist. This is especially helpful if your child is anxious by nature.
4) Play a Pretend Game of Dentist and Patient
In the time before your child’s first appointment, make a game of you pretending to be the dentist and your child the patient. Then switch it around. This will allow your child to feel in control, and to understand that the dentist is a good person who cares about the health of their mouth.
Forget about any “dental instruments” apart from a toothbrush, and perhaps a dental mirror, and start by counting their teeth. Get their favorite toy involved too, and allow your little one to have fun counting their toy’s “teeth.”
You want to aim at familiarizing your child with what they can expect at the dentist, so they’ll feel comfortable when the actual time comes.
5) Buy a Book
Many books on the market nowadays deal with visiting the dentist. Buy one for your child and read it together often — perhaps before or after you play your dentist/patient game. By the time their actual first visit to the dentist arrives, it’ll be like old hands!
Picture books with detailed and age-appropriate language and illustrations are particularly helpful. Spongebob Squarepants: Behold, No Cavities!: A Visit to the Dentist is one example.
6) Keep Things Straightforward and Simple
When you’re preparing your child for their first visit to the dentist, keep things simple, and don’t give them too much unnecessary information. This will only make your child ask more questions, and potentially worry more.
Although you want to do everything you can to protect your little one, don’t give them false hope. Be honest with them, and tell them that they may need treatment. Otherwise, they could lose faith in both you and the dentist.
7) Have a Meet and Greet
Speak to your dentist about bringing your little one in for an initial visit before their first actual checkup appointment. That way, they can meet the staff and know exactly what to expect when they come in for their examination. Having a meet and greet means your child can get themselves acclimatized to the actual office too.
8) Provide Positive Reinforcement.
Never use negative vocabulary when discussing a visit to the dentist. Don’t tell your child that it won’t hurt, as this brings the concept of pain to the forefront of your little one’s mind, and could be problematic for them to shake it off. In other words, you don’t want to “plant” the idea of pain when it comes to their dental appointment.
Follow the lead of your dentist, and watch and listen to the language they use with your child. Always remember to use positive words and phrases, such as “healthy, strong teeth,” to make your child feel good and happy, rather than fearful and scared.
9) Don’t Take Your Child to Your Own Appointments
By all means, let your child see you going to the dentist, but don’t bring them with you. You might be feeling worried and uptight yourself about your own dental appointment, and your little one will pick up on that immediately, and potentially learn from you how to deal with dental anxiety — which is something you don’t want.
Allow your child to see you going out on visits to the dentist, and make sure you don’t say anything negative about your experience. Yes, getting a root canal is probably not everyone’s idea of a fun time, however, your little one doesn’t need to know that.
Children love being like mommy or daddy, so be brave yourself (or at least present a brave front) and use positive reinforcement techniques when discussing your appointment, and, of course theirs.
10) Be Prepared for Your Child to Protest
If your child gets to the dentist and begins to cry and protest, don’t worry. It’s completely normal, and the dentist will have seen it all before. Do your best to stay as calm as possible throughout your child’s tantrum, and work with the dental care professionals to try to move beyond it.
11) Help Your Child to Relax
If your child is particularly anxious, relaxation strategies can help them significantly. Practice deep breathing with them — inhaling deeply, and exhaling slowly. This should enable them to get on top of their anxiety. Talk to the dentist whether sedation dentistry is an option.
12) Stay Close By to Your Child
Because separation anxiety can occur prior to your child’s first birthday and extend until they is about four years old, ask about holding your child’s hand or allowing them to sit on your lap when they’re getting their first checkup. This can make all the difference in their confidence.
13) Be Quiet During the Checkup
Yes, it’ll be tempting to reassure your child throughout their examination. However, you need to stay calm and to allow the dentist to do the talking. This will enable the two of them to build a good rapport with each other that will last well into the future.
14) Don’t Bribe Your Child
It’s never a good idea to bribe your child for behaving at the dentist, as this will only make them feel more apprehensive. They’ll likely only wonder what’s so bad about the dentist, that they get some form of reward for being there.
What’s better is, after the visit is over, to praise your child for behaving well and being brave, and then give them a small toy or sticker every once in awhile, as an encouragement.
15) Encourage your Child to Always Practice Excellent Oral Hygiene Habits
Last, but not least, teach your little one that dental visits are a necessity, not a choice in life, and that the dentist will help them look after their teeth to keep them strong and healthy. Tell them all about cavities, and how the dentist will help in the fight against them. Let them know that by going, they’ll have healthy and beautiful teeth, and a great big smile because of the dentist’s help.
In addition to visiting the dentist for regular checkups, you can help your child yourself at home by incorporating the following:
- Replace your child’s toothbrush every three months.
- Use only a pea-sized blob of toothpaste to brush your little one’s teeth.
- Try to stop your little one sucking their thumb or using a pacifier as soon as you can, as this can sometimes lead to misaligned teeth.
- Avoid too many sugary and starchy snacks that can lead to tooth decay.
- Teach and help your little one to brush their teeth after breakfast, as well as before bed.
Finding a good dentist that’s also compassionate and caring is perhaps the most important aspect of easing your child’s fear of dentist treatment. Good dental care is a lifelong process, and it’s vital to begin early. Steps you take now to alleviate your little one’s anxiety will last them well into adulthood.
Valley Dental Care. P.C. in Chandler, AZ receives cards from children saying how much they enjoyed their dental visits. Your child can enjoy their dental experience too! Call us at 480-897-2483 to schedule your child’s dental appointment.