How to Help your Child Prepare for Dental Work

Your child has his/her regular cleaning/check-up and the dentist mentions that he/she has a cavity, or needs an extraction of a baby tooth. There are many hard times as a parent, and this is definitely one of them. The good news is that as the parent, you can help make this experience feel like “no big deal” with a few easy steps.

Step 1: Explain only what is necessary for the child to know but don’t give them too much information either.

For example, if your child is going in for their first filling, you can say “Dr. X is going to help brush your sugar bugs away so they don’t make your tooth sick.” Your child will ask, “Will it hurt?” The answer is, “The dentist is going to make your tooth go to sleep, but the brush may make a bumpy noise, and may feel cold on your tooth.” If your child already uses a spin-brush, our brush will feel much like the bumpy and cold of a rotary (electric) toothbrush you use at home. If your child asks how the dentist will make the tooth go to sleep, you can tell them that the dentist will guide them through each step on the day of treatment. If your child is going in for his/her first extraction, you can say “Dr. X is going to wiggle your baby tooth for the tooth fairy.” Your child will ask, “Will it hurt?” The answer is, “The dentist is going to make your tooth go to sleep, but you may still feel some pressure while the dentist wiggles your tooth (simulate the pressure while pushing your hand on their shoulder gently). Your child may also hear “snap, crackle, pop” noises in their ears during the extraction. This is normal. If you child has any further questions, tell them that their dentist is going to explain everything to them on the day so that there are no surprises!

Step 2: Words to avoid. Please refrain from using the following words to describe dental treatment.

Shot, needle, drill, pain (painful), hurt, pull, yank. We are very good at describing what we are doing, when we are doing it in kid friendly terms – but if the child has a preconceived notion from their parent that it is going to hurt, then we are working against an uphill battle. On the other hand, do not tell your child that they will not feel anything or not feel any discomfort. Every child has a different perception of discomfort – where one child will cry when they fall down and skin a knee, another may be bleeding and get right back up and continue running after the same fall. The same is true with dentistry and reactions to dental treatments. The best is to leave it up to the dentist to explain what your child will “feel” on that day.

Step 3: Keep your negative childhood dental memories to yourself.

Dentistry has improved A TON since you were a child. Now we have easier and less harmful digital radiographs, easier fluoride treatments, easier ways to numb teeth, etc. If you have had a negative dental experience then whether you realize it or not, your child will pick up on this. Two things to consider which will ultimately help your child at the dentist – do not mention the negative dental experience in front of your child, and avoid saying “I hate/can’t stand/don’t like the dentist.”

Step 4: Avoid sitting right next to your child during the actual dental procedure, or even better for your child, rest in the waiting area while the procedure is being completed.

This is the hardest of all the steps as a parent. You might think that holding their hand or rubbing their arm/leg is helping them – but if you are nervous/anxious at all, this energy is then passed to your child. Your child is trying to learn something new from the dentist and needs to pay attention to the dentist. If a parent is talking to them at the same time, the child doesn’t know who to listen to or believe. This places the dentist on another uphill battle. If the dentist has your child’s full attention, they will be able to complete the treatment more quickly, in a more positive atmosphere, and more effectively. If the dentist feels the child will be more comfortable with their parent, then we don’t hesitate to grab the parent for help. We are in this together!

Step 5: PRAISE YOUR CHILD after they are done.

Tell them how great they did and give them a big hug! Dwelling on any negativity will not make future dental visits go smoothly. Your child may say things like “I didn’t like this part” or it may not have gone as well as you expected. Acknowledge their feelings, “I understand you didn’t like that part, but mommy and the dentist are really proud of how great you did!” This will confirm their feelings but then bring a positive spin to make the child realize how brave and strong they really are! The same goes for other difficult medical procedures. Positivity wins every time!

Avatar Elizabeth Cook Miller, D.D.S., M.S. is a pediatric dentist at Atkins, Maestrello, Miller & Associates Pediatric Dentistry in Richmond, VA. She is a new mother, active runner and her favorite movie is "Finding Nemo".

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