1. Don’t Wait Until There’s A Problem
Nothing sets a child up for a lifetime of fear at the dentist more than having their first dental visit a result of pain. Do not wait for cavities to form and spread before having your child’s teeth evaluated. Begin having teeth checked as soon as they appear in your infant’s mouth. Baby teeth begin erupting around six months of age. Your child’s pediatrician should be examining oral tissues and teeth for signs of trouble during well visits. Be sure to ask. Most children are not ready for a routine dental check-up until the age of three. Prior to that, most general dentists are willing to take a peek at your toddler’s teeth during a parent or sibling check-up without having to schedule a separate appointment. This allows your child to get acquainted with the hygienist and doctor and can determine if your child is ready to schedule a formal appointment. Be sure to inquire with the front desk staff prior to the day of appointment to see what their office policy is and to allow the dentist, hygienist and staff adequate notice in case any tweaking of schedule is required to accommodate your request.
2. Avoid The Fear Factor
Choose your words wisely and avoid TMI. I have witnessed children telling younger siblings horror stories to intentionally scare them. It works! Avoid telling your own dental experiences. Less is more. Keep it simple by saying “the dentist is going to count your teeth, brush them and teach us how to clean your teeth.”
3. Consider A Trial Run
I suggest allowing your child a chance to observe an older sibling or parent at their check-up, especially if they have expressed a lot of questions or concerns. Some experts suggest this isn’t a good idea for fear of transferring dental anxieties, but if the parent or sibling is very comfortable at the dentist, I have found this to be very helpful. It gives me the opportunity to build some rapport with the child prior to their first visit. This way I am not a complete stranger to them on their first appointment. If they are receptive, I’ll give them a ride in the chair and show them all of my “cool tools.” (Note: be sure to schedule an appointment for your child’s first visit within a couple weeks of this trial run. If too much time passes, they forget most of the visit and there is a greater chance of experiencing anxiety.) Another great tip is to play pretend dentist with your child. Shine a phone-light or flashlight in your child’s mouth to count teeth. You can also use an electric toothbrush to pretend polish, which brings us to tip #4.
4. Use An Electric Toothbrush
In general, I do not find inexpensive over-the-counter electric toothbrushes very effective at plaque removal, and I urge parents not to rely on them for maintaining healthy teeth and gums. However, they can be a great tool in preparing a child’s mouth for the intense tickling sensation the polishing can cause during a cleaning. You can allow your child to brush with one to accomplish this, but be sure to follow up after them with a manual toothbrush, concentrating on the chewing surfaces and the gum-line across the front and back of teeth.
5. Bring Some Comforts From Home
With any new experience there are anxieties which can arise, especially for young children facing the great unknown. Bringing specific items from home can add something familiar to the many strange tastes, smells and sounds at their first dental visit. I have found that most children can tolerate polishing better if I use a toothpaste from home that they are already accustomed to using. You can also bring a pair of your child’s own sunglasses to dental visits. The patient lights are very bright for little eyes. A lot of dental practices provide them upon request or as part of their protocol, but bringing your own will ensure a comfy fit. In addition, if your child has a favorite stuffed animal or blanket which they use for comfort during stressful periods, be sure to bring it along but limit it to just one so there are less distractions.
6. Don’t Set Expectations Too High
If I am able to get a good look into your child’s mouth and build a rapport with the patient, I consider that a successful first visit. Completing a cleaning on the first visit is BONUS but not necessarily expected. The most important part of the first dental check-up is setting the tone for a successful dental future. This is accomplished by building trust with the patient. I believe in allowing children a voice in what happens to their bodies. If they trust that I will not do anything that is too uncomfortable for them, they are more likely to allow me to try something new. Important: Some parental input can be helpful but resist trying to dictate the appointment. Leave it to your child and the professionals as much as possible.
7. Ask Questions First
This should actually be #1 in this list of tips, as it is the first step you should take before scheduling your child’s first dental cleaning and examination. The best way to avoid an unsatisfactory first visit is to understand what to anticipate prior to scheduling an exam and prophylaxis. On your next dental visit, ask to speak to the doctor and hygienist. (Note: If your doctor or hygienist are not receptive to pre-scheduling questions, they may not be the right person(s) for your child.) The doctor and staff should be able to guide you in preparing for the big day. They may themselves have questions for you about your child, and/or suggestions on how to best prepare your little one for a successful visit.
8. Set A Good Example
The majority of the good and bad habits we develop we learned from dear old mom and dad. One thing I have NEVER had to state to a patient is “you need to start brushing.” I may tell them they need to brush longer or more often, but I have not once in my career had to tell a dental patient they need to add brushing to their oral hygiene regimen. BUT, I have to tell a patient they need to start flossing almost daily. And why? Because, we have all been taught by our parents from the time we could understand words that brushing our teeth is necessary for a healthy mouth. Don’t expect your child to embrace the importance of dental check-ups and healthy teeth if you are not keeping regular check-ups and maintaining your own teeth and gums. What we do day to day counts so much more than what a hygienist can do once every six months. Let them see you caring for your teeth. They love to mimic what mom and dad do. You are their greatest role model. Adult patients I see who have the easiest time at their check-ups are those who take a little time every day to care for their oral health. Setting the tone early on will help ensure a lifetime of dental health, increase the chance of a longer lifespan and save lots of dental dollars over a lifetime.
Here’s to a lifetime of healthy smiles 🙂
Debra Boss, RDH