As I write this, I’ve just returned with my 4-year-old from the dentist. So really, I wish I had written this story yesterday, when a story on ways to prepare your kid for the dentist would have been more beneficial to me. To her credit, my kiddo has gotten much better about going — she only howled once, which to me is a huge victory. But whether it’s their first time or if they’ve gone before and not liked it, it’s a good idea to know what to expect — for both of you.
“First-time visits are always a nervous time for kids as well as their parents,” Dr. John Iwasaki, a pediatric dentist, tells Romper. I think that’s certainly true. When I have to take any of my kids to the dentist, I always feel like I’m the one who is about to have five cavities filled. Maybe it’s the anticipation of not knowing what the dentist might poke around and find in there that makes you wary of going. And the last thing any parent wants is to imprint their own fears and frustrations upon their own kids, thus causing them to grow-up dreading the dentist.
But since both adults and kids alike should go to the dentist at least twice a year, you’ll need to find ways to make the experience pleasant (and gasp, not painful). Hopefully, some of these strategies will prevent any dental dilemmas for you and your darling, both now and in the future.
1. Start Early
If you thought that you could wait to take your kid to the dentist until he was school-aged, think again. In fact, it should start a whole lot earlier than that, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Ideally, your child’s first visit should be on or before his first birthday, and every six months after that. Not only does it give you a jumpstart on oral care, but it can also get your child more accustomed (read: not afraid) to the dentist. And going for a checkup and a tooth count as a first-timer is a lot less scary than, say, having to go because of a toothache.
2. Use Positive Language
It kind of goes without saying that the majority of people who are afraid of the dentist think it’s going to hurt. That’s why, when prepping your child pre-visit, you should talk about it in positive terms. “You can say things like, ‘This will be fun”, or ‘They will tickle your teeth,’” says Dr. Iwasaki. Avoid saying: “It won’t hurt,” because that will actually make your child more fearful. Dr. Iwasaki recommends not using words like “hurt” and “pain” or even “sharp” when referring to a dental appointment.
3. Be A Role Model
If you’re anxious about your child going to the dentist, chances are that she might pick up on your apprehension as well. “Try not to let your child know that you’re nervous,” says Dr. Iwasaki. Even if that singular scent of the dentist’s office is enough to send you flying off the rails, show your child that you’re not scared. If you act like it’s no biggie, hopefully your child will adopt your attitude, too.
4. Role Play
Your child might feel more comfortable going to the dentist if she already knows what to expect. So stage a mini session in your bathroom. “Brush and count her teeth prior to coming,” says Dr. Iwasaki. “Then tell her they will have the same thing done at the office.” You can even take turns — let your child be the dentist and allow her to check your teeth and gums with a mock mouth mirror to make sure that they’re healthy. It's also a great opportunity for you to brush your toddler's teeth, too.
5. Time It Right
To ensure that your child has a (somewhat) pleasant experience, make sure to schedule her appointment when he's at his best, advised the American Dental Association. A full belly and a nap can go a long way towards a successful visit. Otherwise, she might be too cranky to concentrate on what the dentist is saying, and not be as willing to cooperate.
6. Let Her Practice
Even if your child is still too young to effectively clean her chompers, give her a toothbrush and some kid-safe toothpaste anyway. Watch her as she brushes her teeth and swishes out the spit, and congratulate her on a job well done — even if she misses her molars. Then, let her know that the dentist will pretty much be doing the same thing, too. That way, she’ll feel more prepared for her appointment.
7. Read Books
Turn bedtime into an opportunity to learn more about the dentist and how he works to keep her teeth healthy. From the cuddly confines of her warm bed, you can snuggle and read books about visiting the dentist together. Since her bed is a familiar and safe environment, she’ll be more eager to learn about what a dentist does rather than trying to explain it all to her while she’s squirming (and possibly screaming) in the examination chair.
8. Explain The Importance
Depending on her age, your child might not understand why she needs to go to the dentist. So help her understand that going to the dentist is just another part of her wellness routine. In fact, oral health is strongly connected to your overall health, which is why it pays to invest in it early, the Mayo Clinic found. And in doing so, she’ll keep her teeth nice and healthy, which will help her stay happy (and healthy) as she gets older.
9. Give Her A Preview
To let her get a behind-the-scenes peek at what a dental visit looks, let your little one tag along when an older sibling has to go. Of course, this depends on a few factors: first, make sure that your older sibling isn’t a scaredy cat, which could wind up freaking your kid out more. Second, schedule the ride-along for an easy visit, like a checkup, and not, say, an extraction or a cavity filling.
10. Keep It Simple
Sure, you want your child to be informed, but you also don’t want to overwhelm her with information, either. That’s why you should try to keep it as simple as possible. “Explain the dental visit in terms that your child can understand,” advises Dr. Iwasaki. “ Don’t give her too many details, or worse, tell her a horror story about your own root canal. Keep her on a need-to-know basis, so that she views the dentist as a toothy friend — and not a foe.
Much of how your child reacts to her dental visit depends upon you as her parent. Be informative, positive, and upbeat about the experience, and a visit to the dentist will (hopefully) be fun for her.