It’s a completely normal reaction for a child to have fear of going to the dentist for the first time or even the first few times. Why are kids afraid of dentists? Well, it’s a new environment, there are instruments all over the place, and strangers want to look in their mouths. Hey, even adults can feel uneasy about it! At Bitesize, we’re Brooklyn pediatric dentists and we’ve picked up plenty of tips and tricks along the way for things you can do at home to help your child overcome their fear of the dentist. Here are 10 ideas for alleviating kids’ dental anxiety and making visits easier on both of you:
1. VISIT THE DENTIST AT A YOUNG AGE
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that kids have their first dental checkup when they get their first tooth or no later than their first birthday. This initial visit is quick and usually more informational. We can give you feedback on things like thumb sucking and pacifier use, make sure your child’s little teeth are cavity-free and growing incorrectly, and offer tips for your child’s dental health and oral hygiene routine. Most importantly at this age, it allows your child to develop a relationship with the dentist and get used to the office, so they feel comfortable. We slowly introduce them to things like dental instruments over time, which decreases anxiety. By the time your child is a toddler, visiting the dentist will be routine and they’ll know what to expect. If your child is already a toddler or even school-aged, and they haven’t had a check-up yet, the earlier you can schedule it, the better.
2. GO TO A PEDIATRIC DENTIST (PREFERABLY A FUN ONE!)
While, yes, kids can visit a general dentist, the advantages of pediatric dentistry are pretty significant. First and foremost, pediatric dentists specialize in treating children and teens, including those with special needs. We’re the pediatricians of the tooth world. After dental school, we go through two to three years of additional training and we don’t just learn about children’s oral health, we also learn about child development and psychology, enabling us to communicate effectively with young patients.
At Bitesize Pediatric Dentistry, our dentists use techniques like tell-show-do (we tell kids exactly what we’re going to do and demonstrate it before actually going through with it), distraction (stories, televisions, chatting about their day, etc.), and positive reinforcement with encouragement, compliments, balloons, and cool toothbrushes at the end of visits. We also talk to kids on their level using terms they can understand. All of this relieves jitters and makes it a positive experience.
Another of the advantages of pediatric dentistry is that most pediatric dental offices are geared towards kids. At Bitesize, our offices are comfortable, joyful, and designed with little ones in mind, complete with toys and a super friendly team. When kids like going to the dentist, you won’t have to struggle over appointments and they’ll keep seeing the dentist throughout adulthood, increasing the odds they’ll have a healthy smile for life. We make sure they get off on the right foot with dental visits and each time they come in, it gets easier.
3. TEACH KIDS ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF ORAL HEALTH
It’s a good idea to regularly discuss with your child why it’s so important to take care of their smile, the role of the teeth and gums, and how the tooth doctor can help. Discuss what the teeth do like helping with chewing and speaking properly and how caring for their smile from the start will ensure it lasts a lifetime. Be sure to mention that regularly visiting a pediatric dentist is a key way to maintain their oral health. It can make kids less afraid of the dentist when they understand the “why” behind dental visits and know that the dentist is on their side.
4. KEEP EXPLANATIONS SIMPLE AND WATCH YOUR WORD CHOICES
We wouldn’t recommend telling a kid they’re going to the dentist months in advance since they tend to have great imaginations and with a lot of time to think about it, they can dream up some scary scenarios. Instead, a few days before going to the dentist for the first time, or any time, chat about it. Don’t go into too much detail. Tell them very briefly and simply what to expect using words they can understand and answer their questions. Keep it to-the-point and positive and never use terms like “shot” or “pain.”
If your child needs to have a procedure like a filling, don’t surprise them because that can create mistrust. Ask your pediatric dentist what terms to use to describe the procedure or, better yet, have the dentist do it for you beforehand since we’re trained to talk about dentistry in a non-threatening, kid-friendly way. BOOK AN APPOINT FOR YOUR KIDDO TODAY!
5. BE A GREAT ROLE MODEL
Even if you’re not a fan of going to the dentist, try your best not to let it show. Research indicates that grown-ups can pass on their dental fears to their kids. If you have something like a root canal scheduled at your own dentist, avoid bringing it up in front of your kids or showing your apprehension. Pass on positive emotions instead and talk about the dentist in an upbeat way. Try as hard as you can to seem relaxed and happy when you go into the dentist’s office with your child.
6. PLAY DENTIST
Preparing your child for the dentist and addressing their fears can be as simple as playing a game of pretend. Get out their toothbrush and pretend to be the dentist. Act out what will happen at the visit, including having them sit in a chair, counting their teeth, and brushing and flossing. Then, let them play dentist. You or a stuffed animal can take on the role of the patient. Giving them an idea of what to expect and introducing them to the idea of a dental visit in an environment where they feel comfortable helps get rid of some of the unknowns.
7. READ BOOKS ABOUT THE DENTIST OR WATCH VIDEOS
Reading children’s books about going to the dentist is excellent for preparing your child for visits and overcoming any dental anxiety. They can learn all about how their favorite characters had an amazing time at the tooth doctor and see that nothing bad happens at checkups. A few of our favorites include Just Going to the Dentist by Mercer Mayer, What to Expect When You Go to the Dentist by Laura Rader, Dentist Trip (Peppa Pig) by Scholastic, Curious George Visits the Dentist by H.A. Rey, and The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Some of these titles do mention fillings. You know your kiddo best and if this will be their first visit, maybe skim over that part or make up your own story to explain what’s going on in the pictures. There are also a ton of videos on YouTube you can uncover with a quick search aimed at addressing children’s fears of the dentist and breaking down what happens at the first visit.
8. SCHEDULE WISELY
Sometimes, dental anxiety in children isn’t actually really dental anxiety but the result of a child facing a new scenario when they’re tired, hungry, or already over-stimulated. Schedule your appointment when your little one tends to be most cooperative and happiest, like after their daily nap or in the morning following a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast.
9. GIVE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
By positive reinforcement, we don’t mean bribing kids or offering them candy if they get through a dental visit without crying or squirming. Kids are smart and this tactic will make them wonder what’s so wrong with the dentist that you’re expecting them to cry and squirm. However, if your son or daughter is scared of the dentist, praise them after their appointment for being brave and taking a step towards having a healthy smile. Reinforce all of the things they did really well at their visit and build up some warm and fuzzy feelings they’ll equate with conquering their fears.
If the visit doesn’t go as planned and say your child won’t open their mouth at the dentist, they cry, or refuse to sit in the chair, resist the urge to scold them. Stay calm and just know pediatric dentists work with kids on a daily basis and we’re used to all kinds of reactions when they’re scared. After the visit, talk about why they acted out and what steps you can take together next time to prevent it from happening again and overcome their fear of the dentist.
10. Reach Out for Help if Necessary
All of these tips so far are meant to help with the normal anxiety and fear children often feel about dental visits. As we said, the reason why kids are afraid of dentists is usually because it’s a new situation and any uneasiness will resolve as they get used to visits. However, dental phobia in kids is more severe and often won’t just go away on its own. It’s considered a phobia if it’s persistent, leads to avoidance, and is out of proportion to the situation. True dental phobia in children is rare but it does happen. If your efforts to help your child overcome their anxiety aren’t successful and the fear seems extreme, ask your pediatric dentist for help. In some cases of dental phobia in kids, sedation dentistry or turning to a child psychologist could be an option.
If you’re ready to tackle that first dental visit and you’re looking for a pediatric dentist in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, schedule an appointment at Bitesize Pediatric Dentistry. We always meet our patients where they’re at and let them set the pace. We won’t rush your kiddo into treatment or do anything more than they can handle. We’ll work with you, whether your child is scared of the dentist or not, to overcome your child’s fear of the dentist and make sure they are relaxed at their visits, learns all about oral health, and gets the care they need to maintain a healthy, happy little smile.