6 Tips for Small Children (and their Parents) who are Scared of the Dentist

My 3-yr-old son & 4-yr-old daughter finishing another successful trip to the dentist.
My 3-yr-old son & 4-yr-old daughter finishing another successful trip to the dentist.

Even though I’m sure most parents wouldn’t count “Going to the Dentist” as one of their top-10 recreational activities for small children.   However, if your child ends up terror-stricken at even the thought of having a dentist look at their mouth, this could create a cascading set of problems resulting in poor dental health, cavities, baby-tooth extractions, toddlers in mind-bending pain, and later effects on the health (and appearance) of their teeth and jaws as they grow their bodies.

As such, it was lucky for us that my wife spent years as the manager of an amazing family dental practice in the Washington DC area – one which had particular success in working with children, as well as adults.   After seeing countless children come through her office – with plenty of examples of parents “winning” at the kids-trip-to-the-dentist game, and some most certainly NOT,  she began to get a pretty good idea of how she wanted to approach our own kids and their dental experience.   Her goal being, ideally (hopefully) to have the kids grow up not with a primal terror of going to the dentist, but to instead have it be something no more of an event than going to the grocery store.

And somehow, mostly through my wife’s cunning, and through the expertise of our particular dentist, we’ve been succeeding thus far.   Here’s what’s worked for us:

  • Start Brushing As Soon as They Have Teeth:  At its most basic level, from the child’s perspective, going to the dentist is about having someone look at your mouth, and be able to do things with your teeth.   As such, getting kids used to having people access their mouths is the first & biggest step.   As soon as our kids’ teeth started coming in, we immediately started working on brushing their teeth each night.Now, at first, neither kid was particularly helpful with our getting their teeth brushed.  Most brushing sessions were all about getting ANY sort of win on getting a brush into their mouth and have ANY brushing occur.  On our dentist’s advice, the most important thing, in those early months, is not getting every last surface brushed, but instead to validate the child for any time at all that they’re giving you access to their mouth without squirming away.   And that last part, as any parent will tell you, is a challenge.  As our brushing time was quite limited each night, we used hand-held tooth wipes as a fall-back, to just reach in with our fingers and wipe off the teeth as best we could.   As the early teeth have mostly flat surfaces, these seemed to work well to keep their teeth somewhat clean until the brushing drill got down to where the kids would actually let us complete a full brushing run on them before they took off.
  • Reach & Withdraw from the Dentist:  Once we had around 10 teeth in each child’s mouth, we started making trips to the dentist with them, just to get them used to seeing the dentist and having her look at their mouth.   The first gradient, like it is for so many kids, is just “Let the dentist count your teeth!”.   For my daughter, this was achieved with positively no drama on her first trip to the dentist.  For my son, he was a bit squirmier, but on his second trip we had teeth counted and he was pleased as punch with it.

    So, with a few trips back and forth with nothing more than “let’s count the teeth” as the sole dental procedure being performed was key to getting them to actually sit there for their first real teeth cleaning.

    My son's big sister sitting with him at the dentist to make sure he was OK.
    My son’s big sister sitting with him at the dentist to make sure he was OK.
  • Playing Your Brother / Sister Cards Smartly:  Every family has different dynamics at play with how their children interact with one another.  For us, with our kids only 17 months apart, there have been plenty of ways we’ve been able to play the kids relationship with each other to our advantage on dentist visits.My daughter 5, and is a precociously-talkative chatterbox, but is more cautious than her brother, a 3-year-old daredevil – who may have no idea what’s going on, but wants to try it anyhow.    The two of them are not only the absolute best of friends, but are also always eyeing each other competitively as well – and we’ve used these factors to get dentist trips done effectively on a few cases.     Once, when my son was feeling pretty bold about getting into the dentist chair, we got him a teeth cleaning and had his sister watch & hold his hand along the way.   He totally smoked his cleaning appointment with flying colors, got a toy at the end, and his sister was furious that SHE d didn’t get a cleaning.   It started to become a bit competitive as to who was allowed to go to the dentist and get a cleaning, and continues to be such.Obviously we couldn’t start to play that “hey…your sister GOT TO GO TO THE DENTIST” marketing ploy until both kids were comfortable getting their mouths looked at, and could sit there without squirming & chickening out.   But once they’d done it once successfully, it became a “treat” to get a trip to the dentist.
  • Watch what you say about the dentist – even when it’s just about “you”:  We all know this fact too well:  YOUR KIDS ARE ALWAYS LISTENING.  So, even when you think you’re only having a parent-to-parent discussion about some fearsome root canal you once had, or your terrible wisdom-tooth-exctraction horror story, your words, emotion and associations with the dentist will utterly be picked up by your kids.   So, make sure you & your spouse are a unified front on your “The Dentist is Fun” marketing & PR campaign.   Even if you still need counseling to get over some terrible dental experience you once had, that’s no reason you should make your children terrified of the dentist too – as that’s going to result in nothing but difficulty for you in the future.
  • Make it real to them why you’re doing all this:   After your thirty-first failed attempt to get your kid to sit still while you brush their teeth, it may seem like tying them up & knocking them out, or freezing them in carbonite may be a better method to getting them to end up with brushed teeth than to attempt to explain for the 80th time why they need to brush their teeth.     But, in the end, they will actually need to be themselves responsible for this, so somehow you’re going to have to find something on their level which communicates.So, just like companies have to sometimes change their marketing pitch 6 different ways before you finally understand that their product might be what you need, the messages that finally got through were different & unexpected for each of our kids.  For one of them, it was just seeing a character in a movie that had terrible, rotten teeth that made it real enough.  For the other, it was their mistakenly browsing through the book-of-dental-horror picture book that my wife had sitting on the coffee table at the dental office that convinced them that cavities looked painful.   But in both kids’ cases it took reformulating the message a number of times as their vocabularies grew to get them to understand, for themselves, that caring for their teeth was an important part of staying alive.
  • STAY IN COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR KIDS:  Communication with your kids is a two-way road, always.  Even if it seems like the family should just be a benevolent/fascist dictatorship where subjects obey without question, you need to listen to them as much as they need to listen to you.    Yes, sometimes kids are indeed fabricating from thin air the reasons why they don’t need to get their teeth cleaned.  But while you assume you may always know best what the child needs and what’s happening with them medically and physically, remember to actually talk with your kids and take the time to understand what they’re communicating.
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