We’ve all been there: Our kids screaming and floundering in the dentist’s chair before the dentist even pulls a toothbrush out. There are even a few adults whom 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 their health as an adult.
Oral health is one of the most forgotten aspects of our overall well-being. 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 seeking 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 nonintimidating and normal part of a health care routine.
How do we accomplish this when it seems as if a fear of the dentist is often engrained into our children early? Here are my top four strategies you should try now to combat anxiety later.
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 she can complete the entire appointment while sitting in the parent’s 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 the child grows. This helps to take the pressure off from the child.
Second, it creates the habit of visiting the dentist before a problem arises, so that if the child does need a filling at age 4 or 5, it’s that much less intimidating because she already has a long-standing relationship with the 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 heads in an attempt to 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 children’s thinking so that seeing the dentist is a reward in itself because the dentist is 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 games of make-believe. You and your child can take turns being the patient and the dentist, practicing lying in the chair and pretending to give 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 their dental health in between dental office visits.
Practicing these strategies will help set your children up for success. But don’t be discouraged if they still shed a few tears or let out a couple of screams. It can be a process, and the most important thing is that you are simply getting them through the door.
Helping children with special needs have stress-free dentist visits
By Travis Nelson, DDS, MSD, MPH
For children with special needs, the challenges of a dental exam include unfamiliarity, unpredictability and physical invasiveness. Going to the dentist can be really stressful for parents and children, but if children can learn to allow a dentist to look in their mouth, they are on the path to a lifetime of good oral health. Here are a few tips to help you prepare your child with special needs for a trip to the dentist:
1. Brush teeth at least once daily.
2. If your child benefits from visual cues, consider posting a tooth-brushing graphic somewhere in the area where he brushes his teeth. For children who like apps, here are a few that may prove helpful: Off We Go to the Dentist and My Healthy Smile are a couple of apps that help prepare children for positive oral hygiene habits.
3. Incorporate oral care into daily life. Make it part of the home routine, and consider requesting that it be added to your child’s individualized educational plan during school time.
4. Fluoride in toothpaste is one of the best tools we have to fight decay. Experiment with different brands and flavors. If your child is not able to tolerate the taste or texture of the paste, you can try dipping the toothbrush in a fluoride mouth rinse ― it won’t be as foamy.
5. Minimize the number of snacks that your child has during the day. Children who eat frequently are more likely to get cavities. Drinks and snacks that contain sugar are also likely to cause cavities when consumed outside of mealtimes. Some recommendations for good snacks are fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, cold cuts, nuts and plain popcorn.
6. Sometimes the bathroom may not be the best place to brush. Try having your child lie down so you have a better view of his or her teeth.
7. Complete much of the required paperwork in advance of an office visit to save time.
You know your child best, so don’t be afraid to offer the dentist tips that you think may make the visit easier for your child. The dentist will appreciate it!
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