by Noelle Copeland June 19, 2020 9 min read

As parents, we strive to make sure our children are well taken care of with healthy food to eat, a place to live, we make sure they get exercise, and do well in school. We also make sure their health is a priority by taking them to the pediatrician for regular check-ups and again when they are sick. One of the most important things we can do to make sure they stay healthy is visiting the dentist and to stay on top of their oral health routine at home . 

Oral Health Checklist: 

  • Are they brushing their teeth everyday, twice a day?
  • Are they flossing everyday? 
  • Am I monitoring how much sugary foods they are consuming? (Foods that have a direct impact on the well being of their teeth)
  • Are they 100% on board with their oral care routine? 
  • Do they  understand why brushing their teeth and flossing everyday is essential? 
  • Do they look forward to their next visit to the dentist? 

If you answered NO… to any of these questions, then it’s probably time to evaluate the reasons why! Oral care doesn't have to be difficult, so let’s discuss some reasoning that can help bridge through this season.

What causes a child to fear the dentist?

Scary sights at the dentist

Some children  will develop dental anxiety (fear of the dentist) but it doesn't have to be this way. Let's be honest though,  a few of the reasons why dental visits can feel very cold and scary include

  • a starchy white medical building, 
  • a dental chair that projects you all the way back into a vulnerable supine position, 
  • fluorescent lights, 
  • cold dental instruments placed in the mouth that feel foreign and downright strange, 

Scary sounds at the dentist

The acoustics a dental office can produce are abnormal at best and totally uncomfortable and intolerable at worst:

  •  The buzzing of handpieces, 
  • the swishing of suction tips, 
  • the sound of scraping and scratching against teeth. 

WOW! It’s enough for an adult to try and handle during a dental visit, but even more so for a little person. 

Why a pediatric dentist may be more child-friendly

Choosing a pediatric dentistry can help alleviate some of those scary “first impressions”. When children have dental anxiety or are on the verge of developing dental phobias, you can help them overcome these. As parents, we need to  ease our kids' fears and let them see that the dentist and the dental hygienist are our friends and there to help us. We have researched this very tender topic and sat down with a seasoned dental professional to bring you the best ways to help your child calm their fears about oral care, all while being a pro-active and pro-dental parenting partner.

TAKE THEM EARLY!!

The number one tactic to prevent the early inception of dental phobias, where kids will fear going to the dentist, is to start oral care at home, very early, and take them to the dentistEARLY and on a regular basis. Your child should visit the dentist for the first time either when the first tooth erupts into the mouth or by their first birthday, whichever comes first. The dentist will look in your child's mouth for normal anatomy and development, and then discuss future visits or any concerns you may have. This first visit is all fun, no drama and no trauma, children don't typically get their first hygiene cleaning visit until around age 3. 

If you are starting oral care early at home, no later than 2-3 months of age, make sure your baby is visiting the dentist before the age of 1, and then continuing with good home training and future dental visits, then you are seriously rocking out the dental boat of excellence. Additionally, consider taking them to a pediatric dental office versus a general dentist. This is aGREAT IDEA because most pediatric dentistry practices usually have amazing offices with kid themed rooms and entertainment. This comforts children from the very beginning, before they even see the dentist, saying that this is going to be a fun place to visit and not scary, a place of trust.

A dental visit is something your kids will be doing on a regular basis, hopefully, for the rest of their life. So, it’s vitally important to make sure it starts, from the very beginning, with a positive experience. Tell your child that their dental care is VERY important and their teeth and smile are one of the key factors in keeping them healthy and happy. Kids won't be able to fully grasp how their oral health is directly related to their systemic health, organically. However, you can help educate them on this important connection with the help of your dental team. When a child begins to understand how a tooth that hurts affects what you can eat, because it also affects how well you can chew, which in turn affects how our bodies get nutrition,THEN they can grasp more complex links like diabetes, systemic infections, cavities, gingivitis, and periodontal disease.

Fear Factors

Kids can develop a fear of going to the dentist because of what they hear their parents or other adults saying around them, so model your words into positive tones and help protect their ears from dental horror stories. It's all in the way you tell your child and the words you use.

Bad past experiences can leave lasting impressions for little souls.For example:

  • unexpected pain, 
  • scary sounds, 
  • appointments that lasted way longer than expected, or 
  • unkind clinicians who failed to meet the pediatric bar of perpetual kindness. 

So talk openly with their current clinicians about this so they can help be a part of speaking positive words and experiences into your child. 

Also, 

  • never hesitate to ask questions of the professionals you choose to visit. Remember, they are providingYOU a service thatYOU are paying for. 
  • You have every right to be in the room with your child or to make any request for your child's well being. 
  • Consider however, they don't have to comply with your request, you are well within your right and authority to ask or insist, and then make a decision based on that outcome. 

If you feel uncomfortable with the dental care at a practice for any reason, you can be sure your child does too. Picking the right dentist office is like finding the perfect shoe, it needs to fit just right but may need just a little bit of “breaking in” to fit perfectly.

Little Ears hear Every Word!

Comments from a parent such as, "You better hope you don’t have a cavity from not brushing your teeth like I told you to,  because that is going to cost me hundreds of dollars to fix'' , these are very negative statements.  This makes kids fearful to go to the dentist because if they do end up with a cavity, they are scared you will be angry with them. Tell your child positive words and phrases and remember, it'sYOUR job to brush your child's teeth until around age 5, and it's also your job to continue to monitor their brushing habits and results, learning when to intervene if necessary. Just like every other important function a kid has to learn how to do themselves.. 

Most of the time, if a young child or adolescent has a lot of cavities, it's much less on the shoulders of the child, as this scenario lies squarely on the backs of a parent's responsibility to monitor. It would be like blaming a child for eating too much sugar, that led to cavities or even diabetes, but then continuing to buy the sugar oblivious, while not actively “parenting” the situation by educating, training, and implementing change. If you are shelling out hundreds of dollars for your kids cavity ridden teeth Mom and Dad, that's more on you, than on them. 

Some kids, especially younger kids, are afraid to be separated from their parents during the dental visit. Call before your first visit to the dentist to see what their policy is for parents staying in the treatment room while procedures are being done. If they don't allow parents to come back, then request an exception until your child is more comfortable. If they state this is not a rule they are willing to bend, then find another practice. There are many dentist practices that would be happy to oblige and help work with your requests. 


Positive Tactics

There are so many positive ways a dentist or dental hygienist can interact with a child that has a fear of the dentist while helping them overcome those fears at the same time.

  • During the dental visit, dental professionals can introduce their instruments in a fun and interactive way to children during their visit and give them "kid friendly" names. Noelle, a dental hygienist, uses these terms with her young patients. "I call my mirror “Mrs Mouth Mirror”, and my trusty tooth ruler, and I usually let my patients hold them too. Then we play with my gloves and sometimes even make balloons out of them. Mr. Thirsty gets introduced and I explain how he slurps up all the saliva and toothpaste in the mouth, then I show off my special toothbrush spinner, with my crunchy toothpaste, my fun tooth paint, and finally the fluffy tooth pillows that I use sometimes.”
  • Use positive language, "kid friendly" this also helps children overcome their fear. "When dealing with young patients, I never say the words shot or needle”, it's always "Putting the tooth to sleep"  if a filling is needed because of a cavity," Noelle explains.
  • It's always a good idea for dental offices, especially pediatric dentistry offices, to have movies available for kids to watch while being treated and offer special prizes or unique picks from a treasure chest for them to choose from at the conclusion of their dental care appointment to reinforce their good behavior and a successful trip visiting the dentist.
  • Dentists and dental professionals should engage the child in conversation, ask them questions, tell them stories and use positive conversation so they feel secure. Smiling is totally underrated, and should literally be at the TOP of every person's list of daily goals, including every dental offices policies manual. A smiling face to a child is an open invitation to a growing  and trusting relationship.
  • When the visit to the dentist is done compliment them on their good behavior during their dental visit.
  • Celebrate them taking good care of their teeth and being part of the "Cavity Free Club." However, if the entire visit was a struggle from start to finish,  always focus on what went right and what was healthy if there were some cavities. For every negative blow that needs to be conversed on, make sure to emphasize the good points with at least 5 good accolades. I cannot tell how much of a difference this makes for children and even adults on their dental visits.

Helpful Parent Advice From A Helpful Hygienist

‘A positive attitude is so important from the parent, I think a lot of the time the unprovoked fear a child has comes from a parent unknowingly planting those seeds. Make brushing and oral care fun and rewarding is top of the list for positive events. Even in my own house when I'm just exhausted from adulting all day and  I have to nag my kids to brush their teeth, they instinctively will  drag their feet even more. 

Same goes for inside the dental office. I've heard parents say things like, " You have no idea how much money I have spent FIXING your mouth." It just makes the whole experience more negative and kids pick up on that and then they feel like the dentist is a bad place.

I can't tell you the number of adults who would walk into a room for an appointment, and not even say Hi  and just proclaim….. "I hate being here, I hate the dentist, please do this as fast as you can" …. and a lot of those people had really bad teeth and bad dental experiences because they weren't doing their part at home, and some of those people had great teeth and home care and were just continuing to fear such a simple hygiene maintenance step. This kind of phobia can trickle down to the children around you so when I say be careful how you say things and when you say them, I mean it. Oral care doesn't have to be challenging or painful, it just takes time. Time spent taking care of yourself and your family is always timeWELL spent.

It’s so important for kids to see how helpful it is going to the dentist and how much they care about them and want them to have happy smiles. Do the footwork, interview some pediatric dental practices, ask friends for good recommendations. Making sure your kids are on board for taking care of their teeth is one battle worth fighting for!’

Noelle Copeland
Noelle Copeland


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