We’ve all been there: our kids screaming and floundering in the dentist’s chair before they even pull a toothbrush out. There are even a few adults that you’ll see doing the same (as a practicing family dentist and a mom myself, I’ve seen it all)! Unfortunately, what seems like a common and extremely normal fear in children, can lead to damaging behavior to your health as an adult.
Oral health is one of the most forgotten aspects of our overall wellbeing. For example, if we break a bone or sprain an ankle, most of us would seek immediate medical attention. But, how many of us have postponed a visit to the dentist at the onset of a toothache? We often see patients go a year or more without pursuing the care of a dentist, at which point the initial toothache has turned into a much larger and more costly issue.
What many of us don’t realize is that poor oral health can indicate or even cause severe medical conditions. So, it’s crucial that we teach our children at a young age to view a visit to the dentist as a non-intimidating and normal part of a healthcare routine.
So, how do we accomplish this when it seems as if a fear of the dentist is engrained into our children nearly at birth? Here are my top four strategies you should try now to combat this challenge:
1. Start by eliminating your fear of the dentist
It’s no secret that young children mirror our behaviors. If our kids hear us talk about our own dental appointments in a negative light, they will quickly develop their own negative associations. Not only is it important that we avoid expressing our fears about the dentist, but we need to go the extra mile to link positive words and experiences with the dentist and oral hygiene.
2. Get them in early
We typically like to see children in our office by the time their first tooth has come in, which is usually by their first birthday. This timing is beneficial for a number of reasons. First, the child is young enough that they can complete the entire appointment while sitting in your lap to create a sense of safety and comfort. The dentist may do a quick check for abnormalities and proper tooth development. But, the focus of the appointment is speaking with the parent about oral hygiene, nutrition, and what to expect as your child grows. This helps to take the pressure away from the child.
Second, it creates the habit of visiting the dentist before a problem arises, so that if your child does need a filling at age four, it’s that much less intimidating because they already have a long-standing relationship with their dentist.
3. Avoid rewards
This might seem counterintuitive, but try to avoid bribing your children with a reward for visiting the dentist. It might be tempting to dangle that over their head in an attempt promote positive behavior, but it instills in them the idea that the dentist is negative and the reward is positive. Why is a visit to the dentist so bad that it would warrant some type of reward? It’s about shifting your child’s thinking so that seeing the dentist is a reward in itself because they are taking steps to keep them strong and healthy. This is something all of us could work on!
4. Play “dentist” at home
This is an easy, fun way to familiarize young kids with the idea of the dentist. Just as you might play ‘house’ or dress-up with your children, start incorporating a visit to the dentist in your game of pretend. You and your child can take turns being the patient and the dentist, practice lying in the chair and giving an oral exam. This is not only a great way to get your kids comfortable with the process, but it also allows for an opportunity to check their teeth on your own at home, which is important to stay on top of in-between dental office visits.
Practicing these strategies will help set your child up for success. But, don’t be discouraged if they still shed a few tears or let out a couple screams. It can be a process, and the most important thing is that you are simply getting them in the door.