Going to the dentist for the first time can be daunting, but there are plenty of things both parents and dentists can do to ease a child’s anxiety. At West 85th Dental, we take extra care to help ensure our littlest patients, and their parents, always leave our office smiling.
When Should My Child First Visit the Dentist?
Children should undergo their first dentist visit as soon as their first tooth emerges, typically around their first birthday. After that, your child should undergo a full dental exam and cleaning every six months. However, depending on your child’s unique dental needs, their dentist may suggest they visit more frequently.
To help ensure your child gets the care they need, we offer pediatric dental exams and cleanings specially tailored to the dental needs of children. To learn more about what to expect during your child’s dental appointment, and what you can do to help protect your child’s teeth and gums, please visit our pediatric dentistry page.
10 Things You Can Do to Help Ease Your Child’s Anxiety
Let Your Child Know What to Expect
Children are naturally curious and don’t always do well with sudden changes or unknowns. To help your child prepare for their visit, discuss how the appointment is going to progress. Talk about how you will need to wait patiently in the waiting room until it’s your child’s turn to sit in the big fancy chair. Explain what the dentist is going to do using age-appropriate language. This could include telling your child that the dentist is going to “count” their teeth and “take a look at them.”
You should also explain that the dental hygienist will come and give your child’s teeth a thorough cleaning. Make sure you remind your child that you will be with them in the room the whole time.
Answer Questions, But Keep the Details to a Minimum
Your child will likely have a lot of questions about their visit to the dentist. Do your best to answer them in a simple, straightforward manner but leave any complicated or technical answers for the dentist or dental hygienist.
Remember, it may be your child’s first dental visit, but their dentist is an experienced professional. As part of your dentist’s training, they will have learned how to explain complicated dental concepts using easy to understand and non-threatening language. They may even have colourful props or toys to help get their message across.
Consider a Ride Along
Provided you aren’t a nervous patient yourself you may want to consider setting a good example for your child at your next appointment. Children learn a lot by observing how people they trust react to unfamiliar situations, so seeing a parent or other caregiver do something intimidating in a calm fashion, and emerge unharmed, can go a long way.
Talk to your dentist about having your child observe your next dental visit so they can become familiar with the order of operations and the staff. Children are often nervous the first time they do something, go somewhere new, or meet new people, so tackling that initial anxiety can help make their first visit a happy one.
Schedule a Meet & Greet
You may also want to talk to your child’s dentist about scheduling a meet and greet appointment. These appointments allow your child to become familiar with the staff, the office, and the general format of the visit before it’s time to sit in the big chair for real.
These dress-rehearsal style appointments give both you and your dentist a chance to see how your child reacts to the idea of the dentist visit, and if necessary, create a more tailored approach to their first appointment.
Roleplaying and other imaginative play is an excellent way for your child to prepare for real-life scenarios in a stress-free, low-stakes environment. You can either take turns being the dentist and the patient, or enlist the help of a few willing stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures. Explain how the dentist looks inside the patient’s mouth and clean their teeth.
Roleplay is also a good time to explain to your child what a dentist is and what they do, using age-appropriate language. For example, you may say that while dentists are special doctors who take care of our teeth and gums, they are also just ordinary people like you and me.
Use Positive Language
You want to make sure your child is looking forward to meeting or visiting their new friend the dentist, so make sure to avoid scary or negative words. Words such as “pain”, “hurt”, and “shot” should be avoided at all costs since they could cause unnecessary anxiety during an already potentially tense situation.
Keep Any Bad Memories to Yourself
Even if your own childhood dentist wasn’t good with children, now isn’t the time to bring it up. Make sure you avoid sharing bad memories of the dentist or anything dental related, and instead talk about positive experiences you’ve had at the dentist’s office and emphasize how nice and friendly your current dentist is.
Talk About Good Oral Health
Most small children love to ask “why?” so use that to your advantage. Your child may be more excited about going to the dentist if they understand why they need to go and why it’s important.
Next time you’re brushing your child’s teeth, you should take some time to talk about why brushing is important for our teeth and gums, and explain what role the dentist and the dental hygienist play in keeping our mouths happy and healthy.
Choose a Good Appointment Time
Timing can play a huge role in whether the first dental visit is a success or not. When you’re booking your child’s appointment, both the first time and for subsequent visits, make sure you choose a time that works for them as well as you.
Try and choose a time slot that coincides with when your child is most happy and alert, and avoid appointments that overlap with nap time, mealtime, or snack time that could leave you with a tired or hungry toddler on your hands.
You should also avoid time slots that could disrupt your child’s daily routine. If your partner comes home at the same time each day, or you always visit the park at the same time, or you have another activity that acts as an anchor during your child’s day, you should avoid appointment slots that could interfere with that activity. Most children crave consistency and don’t always react well to disruptions.
If Necessary, Try Again Another Day
Sometimes things just don’t work out, and that’s okay. Even all the preparation in the world isn’t always enough to ensure a smooth and tear-free first visit. If your child isn’t handling their first appointment well, it’s perfectly alright to call it quits and try again another day.
To help ensure you have a backup plan in place, you may want to consider scheduling two appointments for your child: an initial appointment and a backup appointment. If the first appointment goes swimmingly, you can always cancel the second one.
If your child does get scared, angry, or has a total meltdown, it’s crucial to get to the root of the problem. Give them a chance to step back from the situation and calm down and then work with your child to figure out what caused their emotional discomfort. Once you figure out what the problem is, you can work with your child and, if necessary, your dentist to better prepare your child for their next visit.
Regular dental exams and cleanings, along with brushing and flossing at home, form the foundation of any robust oral health routine. By helping your child build a positive relationship with their dentist early on, you can help your child enjoy a lifetime of good oral habits as well as healthy teeth and gums.
Help keep your child’s mouth happy and healthy. Book their first appointment today. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact our office.