Some children have anxiety about going to the dentist. Some adults, too. But there are things you can do to help ease your child’s fears and make taking your child to the dentist a positive experience for everyone.
Know what to expect.
It’s recommended that you start taking your child to the dentist early — when their first tooth appears or by their first birthday — because dental problems can develop in children as young as 6 months old. And starting early will also help them get familiar with the routine of having their teeth checked.
If you haven’t taken your child to the dentist yet, here’s what to expect at the appointment:
- The dentist will examine your child’s teeth, gums and bite. They’ll look at how the teeth are coming in and check for early signs of cavities or weaknesses in the teeth or enamel.
- This basic exam is usually very brief. You should be allowed to stay close to your child to help them feel safe and comfortable. The dentist may even sit knee-to-knee with you while you hold your child during the exam.
- If your child is relaxed and able to cooperate, the dentist may choose to give your child’s teeth a gentle cleaning or provide a fluoride treatment.
- Once the exam is completed, the dentist will talk with you about nutrition, brushing habits and oral hygiene. And you can ask them questions, too, like, “Can you show me how to brush my child’s teeth?” or “How much toothpaste should I use?”
Help your child look forward to their dental visits.
Helping your child feel comfortable with the idea of going to the dentist can really make a difference in reducing their fears. In the days leading up to their appointment, reading books about going to the dentist will show your child that going to the dentist is something everyone does — even Elmo — and why it’s important to take care of their teeth. You can find a lot of children’s books on the subject at your local public library. Sesame Street has some good videos and activities, too.
Planning a small reward for your child to look forward to after their trip to the dentist can be helpful, too. (But you probably shouldn’t use candy as the positive reinforcement.)
Help your child stay calm by being calm yourself.
A lot of adults feel anxiety about a trip to the dentist, and children can sense stress in their parents and others who care for them. If you have had a negative experience with a dental appointment in the past, try to remember that seeing a dentist is important for your child’s health. The whole experience will be new to your child, and you want them to develop positive feelings about going to the dentist. So do your best to avoid sharing details of any negative experiences you may have had in the past.
Before and during your child’s dental appointment, focus on ways to keep yourself calm and positive. That can really make a big difference in helping your child feel more at ease. Seeing you calm and relaxed shows your child how they should act, too.
During the appointment, try to be encouraging, giving them praise for each step along the way. If your child does fuss, be comforting and understanding with your little one, and let the dental professionals guide you. They’ll do their best to make your visit as pleasant as possible.
Try to keep in mind that dentists are there to help you and your child. If the dentist finds that your child does have a cavity or problem, they will talk with you to try to find the cause and also suggest ways to reduce the chance of it occurring again. Their advice doesn’t come from judgment, but out of concern and the responsibility to care for you and your child.
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Consider a pediatric dentist.
It’s perfectly fine to take your child to your dentist — check with them to see if they treat young children — but not all dental offices are set up to make the experience child-friendly. Pediatric dentists specialize in treating children. Pediatric dental offices have fun decorations and distractions and kid-sized equipment. And because a child’s appointment can be tricky, they often have more staff on hand to make treatment appointments go faster.
More importantly, pediatric dentists are experienced in making kids comfortable during dental exams and treatment. That starts with building trust. They might do this by physically getting down on your child’s level to introduce themselves so they appear friendly and less intimidating. They will take a moment to establish a connection with your child by asking about a favorite cartoon character, a favorite school activity or simply asking something about their day. A pediatric dentist will use kid-friendly words instead of technical dental terminology. And they may use a “tell-show-do” strategy to help your child be comfortable during the exam. They’ll tell your child what happens next: “I’m going to count your teeth.” Then show them what they’re about to do, by counting their fingers. And then actually do the counting while, more importantly, examining their teeth!
Whether you see your family dentist or a pediatric dentist, taking your child for regular dental check-ups while they’re young is an important way to help your child stay healthy and smiling.
More Ways to Keep Your Child Healthy and Smiling
Watch our videos about the importance of baby teeth, how to brush, and other simple ways to prevent tooth decay.
Kavita Bernstein serves First Things First as the Program Manager for Children’s Health, overseeing funded preventive health grants across Arizona. Her areas of expertise include: oral health; behavioral health; health screening for developmental, vision and hearing challenges; supporting children with special needs; and creating systems to help families navigate health care resources.
Special thanks to Dr. Amanda Wruble for her consultation and contributions to this article. Dr. Wruble is a pediatric dentist at Molar Magic in Casa Grande, AZ and has been treating children and families for over 18 years.