Dental appointments can be nerve-wracking for adults, so it makes sense that sitting in the dentist’s chair can cause anxiety in kids. Going to an unfamiliar place and meeting new people can feel scary — plus, there’s all those strange noises — and your child might be worried something will hurt. Luckily, a bit of planning can make dental appointments easier for both you and your child. Here are 7 simple ways to prepare for your kids’ next dental visit, according to a pediatric dentist.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends parents take their kids for their first dental visit by age one, or within six months of getting their first tooth. It might not seem important to see a dentist when your child barely has any teeth, but those early appointments provide important exposure for your kid and education for you.
“If a child has been coming to see us since age one, they might be ready to sit in the dental chair by themselves when they’re two or three,” says Audrey Mikkelson, a dentist and clinical instructor of pediatric dentistry at the University of Washington School of Dentistry.
Early dental appointments are also an educational opportunity for you — Mikkelson says your child’s dentist can fill you in on how to brush an infant or toddler’s teeth, when to start using toothpaste, and how to keep your child’s mouth and teeth healthy in general. Plus, if your child has a mouth or dental injury, or you have questions, you’ll have a place to call!
Talk about it
Normalizing dental visits can make your child less nervous about appointments. Do your best to tell your child about their upcoming appointments in advance, so you have time to talk about what to expect.
Children’s books and TV shows about dentist appointments can provide talking points about what to expect. Mikkelson says your dentist might also have a video on their website introducing the staff and the office, which can help familiarize your child with the environment before going.
Emphasize the importance of healthy teeth
Understanding why we go to the dentist can be motivating, too. Mikkelson encourages involving your kids in your tooth-brushing and flossing routine — make it a family occasion! — and regularly talking about the importance of healthy teeth. Telling your child when you’re going to the dentist can also set a positive example. When it’s time to go to an appointment, remind your child the dentist is going to brush and floss their teeth just like you do at home.
Make booking easy
Scrambling to find a dentist when you need one adds unnecessary stress to the whole experience, so do your best to make booking as easy as possible.
Mikkelson recommends finding a “dental home” for your child early on, so you have an established relationship when you need care. You may prefer a pediatric dentist, who has extra education in treating young children. If you already see a family dentist, you can also ask if they treat children your kid’s age.
Either way, once you choose a dentist, you should be able to schedule ongoing appointments after each visit — which takes scrambling out of the equation.
Use positive reinforcement
You’ve probably used positive reinforcement at home — offering praise or prizes for doing chores or other good behavior. The same approach can work with dentist appointments, Mikkelson says.
Try specifically praising your child for something they did well before or during the appointment to build their confidence. Many pediatric dental offices give kids a new toothbrush and a small prize after an appointment, and you can try the same thing. For example, planning a special activity or giving your child a sticker post-dentist might make them more excited for their next appointment.
Keep the incentives simple — just enough to make the experience fun. “To kids, a huge prize after an appointment makes going to the dentist seem like a really big deal, which might make them more nervous,” says Mikkelson.
Give your kids some control
New environments can feel overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect, so Mikkelson suggests offering a nervous child choices to reduce anxiety. Many dentists do this already, allowing kids to pick their own toothpaste flavor or the show they watch during a cleaning or dental procedure.
You can give your child a sense of control, too: For example, let them choose their own outfit or pick the music en route to the appointment. You can also allow your child to pick whether you sit next to them in the appointment or in the waiting room.
Bring their favorite toy or stuffed animal
Many pediatric dental offices, Mikkelson says, have books, toys, and activities in the waiting area. But it may help your child to bring a stuffed animal or toy of their own. For one thing, Mikkelson says, a toy from home can provide some security in a potentially scary environment.
A stuffed animal or doll is also a great way to ease into a cleaning or other dental work. “If a kid is feeling nervous, they love it if we do a little demonstration on their stuffed animal first,” Mikkelson says.
Screens, on the other hand, aren’t always helpful. An iPad might keep them calm in the waiting room, but Mikkelson says distraction isn’t so useful in the long term.
“We want to teach them how to build relationships at the dental office and be engaged during appointments,” she says.