This is an understandable concern for any parent — especially parents about to bring their child to the dentist for the first time. How will my child handle the appointment? What if they’re afraid?
In this post we’ll go over things you can do to set the dental appointment off on the right foot, as well as solutions most dental offices have for when children have some anxiety.
Setting The Ideal Tone
What we always advise parents is that children tend to follow their parents’ in terms of energy. Often times, if a child has dental anxiety it’s because one of their parents is feeling anxious.
It’s ok to feel nervous, especially if you had a bad dental experience earlier in your own life that’s left you apprehensive of the dentist.
But remember: your child hasn’t had any experiences at the dentist yet, so their expectations are based on your demeanor and any preparation you’ve done for the appointment.
As we mentioned in our knee to knee exam post, we recommend parents begin playfully putting a finger or a warm cloth in their child’s mouth and swabbing the gums. This helps get the child used to an adult opening their mouth and exploring, and will make the dental exam seem less unusual or surprising.
You can also read your child picture books about going to the dentist so they can begin to understand the concept. Seeing pictures of a dentist in a mask looking at a patient’s teeth is another step that makes actually seeing a dentist in a mask less surprising. The chances of the child feeling nervous, scared, or uncomfortable diminish with the familiarity.
Some parents even roleplay with their children, pretending to be a dentist and counting their teeth. These activities will make it more straightforward at the appointment, since it will seem like another game they’ve played before.
Begin Your Child’s Dental Experiences Early.
The older your child is when they go to a dentist for the first time, the greater the feeling of unfamiliarity will be. This can make anxiety or uncertainty more likely.
On the other hand, beginning their dental visits when their first tooth erupts will meaningfully build the bond, and it will feel like it’s always been a part of their life.
Other Causes Of Kids’ Dental Anxiety
Even if children start out very comfortable going to the dentist, some will develop discomfort with the experience as they age.
In fact, a 2019 study showed that between the ages of 7 and 9, 25% of the children observed had developed an increased far of the dentist.
The reasons stemmed from 2 major factors:
- This was an age range where, if the parents had anxiety about the dentist, the children would pick up on it more keenly. While a toddler may pick up on the general energy a parent feels and feel it too, at ages 7-9 the child begins reasoning through why their parent must be feeling anxiety. This can cause them to reach negative conclusions and fear going themselves.
- By age 7, most children will have had some of their baby teeth fall out. Where they may have been comfortable with the dentist before, losing teeth can make them more sensitive to someone poking around in their mouths.
- Many children make it to adulthood and beyond with no cavities or toothaches. But for children who experience those things, this age range tends to be when these discomforts begin. Once a child begins feeling pain in their mouth, they may become much more apprehensive of a dentist poking around in there.
What Pediatric Dentists Can Do To Alleviate Dental Anxiety In Children
At our office we love to take it slow and develop rapport with children as we get to know them. If we can make them laugh, perfect.
If children are old enough to have basic things explained to them, we’ll go over what we’re going to do in the exam in a positive way, and we find simple explanations like this beforehand tend to make children much more comfortable.
Sometimes we use show and tell mirroring, where we show children our teeth and explain what we’ll be looking at specifically during the exam.
We generally encourage parents to be present during pediatric dental exams.
For children that become unruly or really aren’t comfortable during the exam, we may have the parents help to comfort the child and keep them still.
For parents who are interested, we also offer a mild form of sedation to help children feel at ease and sit still during the appointment.
Dahlander A, Soares F, Grindefjord M, Dahllöf G. Factors Associated with Dental Fear and Anxiety in Children Aged 7 to 9 Years. Dent J (Basel). 2019 Jul 1;7(3):68. doi: 10.3390/dj7030068. PMID: 31266156; PMCID: PMC6784363.