Helping your kids have a positive experience at the dentist sets them up for a lifetime of healthy dental hygiene habits. But what if your kid has jitters about what lies ahead? Should you regale your child with tales of your own experiences to pave the way? Probably not. “The biggest reason kids get nervous is that they pick up on a parent’s anxiety,” says pediatric dentist Mario Ramos, DMD, of Pediatric Dentistry and Orthodontics of Midland Park. “A generation ago, we didn’t have pediatric dentists, so not all parents had the best experiences growing up. But we’ve come a long way, and we have better tools and techniques now to help your child have a more positive visit.”
Besides twice-yearly visits to the dentist starting at a year old, here’s what else you can do to help your kid develop healthy habits:
APPROACH THE VISIT AS “NO BIG DEAL”
Maybe you’ve spent your fair share of time in the chair, but now’s not the time to tell your own stories of cavities, root canals and other not-so-fun procedures. “Instead, explain everything in a matter-of-fact way, saying it’s just something we all have to do to stay healthy and that everyone goes to the dentist,” says Ramos.
WATCH YOUR WORDS
“Avoid saying things such as, ‘he’s not going to use a needle,’ or ‘she won’t pull your teeth’ or ‘it’s not going to hurt,’ because your child will only hear the words ‘pulling teeth,’ ‘needle’ or ‘hurt,’” says Ramos. Instead, stick with more neutral and encouraging comments, such as reassuring them that you’ll be close by.
FIND A PEDIATRIC DENTIST
You might love your dentist, but your kid will likely be more comfortable with a pediatric dentist, who receives an additional two to three years of schooling. “Pediatric dentists receive specific training in child psychology,” says Paul Casamassimo, DDS, chief policy officer with the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “And most of us choose this field because we love working with kids, we like to joke with them and put them at ease, and we’re compassionate about how we deal with kids.”
ASK ABOUT COVID PROTOCOLS
Although many offices usually have play areas with toys, those may be closed temporarily. The practice also may not have reopened the waiting area yet, so you’ll wait in the car. Typically, only one parent (and no siblings) are allowed to accompany your child, so plan ahead. Wearing a mask and temperature checks and screening questionnaires for patients and staff are widely still done. “Dental offices always have specialized in infection control,” says Ramos. “But now many offices have added things such as HEPA air purifiers and UV lighting for an extra layer of protection.”
MAKE SURE THEY HAVE GOOD HABITS AT HOME
Help keep kids on track by monitoring their routine. For starters, most kids don’t have the manual dexterity to do a good job brushing early on, so you’ll need to brush for them. By age 4 or 5, they’re getting the hang of things but still need help on the back molars, which kids often miss. For any age, make sure they brush for about two minutes because the longer they’re in there, the better chance they’ll do a decent job, says Ramos. Set a timer or suggest your child hum “Happy Birthday” through two times. Also, make sure your child of any age is flossing! Special kid-friendly flossing picks make it easier to get your hands in little mouths while you floss for them, and are simpler for big kids to use, too. “It’s critical to floss every day because toothbrushes don’t fit between teeth, and that’s where plaque sits so that’s where most kids’ cavities occur,” says Ramos.
How to Help Your Child with Special Needs at the Dentist
Start by looking for a mention of treating special needs patients on a website. Here are more tips:
FIND A PEDIATRIC DENTIST
Working with kids with special needs is part of their education. “Pediatric dentists receive additional years of schooling in child development,” says Casamassimo. “We’re trained and attuned to taking care of kids with special needs.”
ASK ABOUT CARE FOR KIDS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Every interaction from the front desk to the dentist should be friendly and encouraging. The front office may ask about concerns and past experiences. Ask about sedation dentistry. Some offices book longer appointment windows or ask to see kids at times when they’re most relaxed.
PREPARE YOUR CHILD
Many offices will encourage you to do a walk-through with your child to meet staff and dentists. You may want to make a photo book of the office so your child can page through it over and over as you talk about what to expect. This can help the experience feel more familiar and less unsettling, says Ramos. Or watch a video about going to the dentist and try practicing with an electric toothbrush.
—Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.