Tuesday, December 2, 2014

5 Tips for Helping Your Child at the Dentist

I recently went to the dentist for a cleaning and while I was checking out, I witnessed a mom whisper to the secretary and the hygienist that her daughter {who was innocently playing with the toys} thought she was only there for a cleaning and no one was to tell her otherwise.  Every ounce of my being was in complete shock and it took everything in me not to yell out in horror.  This poor little girl, who might have been 8 years old, was about to walk in to an experience she knew nothing about and was never prepared for.  I wished so badly that I could sit with her, explain what was about to happen and reassure her that these were helpers, not bad guys, who were about to make things better.  I would tell her it might hurt, but there are things we can do together to ease the pain.  I would ask her if she had any questions because her imagination could be much scarier than reality.

The dentist does not have to be a scary place, but so many children and adults are scared because of bad experiences, feeling lied to about the process and, of course, the unknown.  Honesty is the best policy although many parents don't know how to explain dental procedures and very few practices have child life specialists or other developmental specialists to ease the experience. Without these resources or the knowledge to support a child, it can be difficult, but it does not have to be impossible.  Here are 5 tips to ease the anxiety of a school-aged child going to the dentist....

1. Take some sort of music player and headphones
Listening to music can be a great distraction and can eliminate some of the other sounds during the appointment.  This is also a great way to discourage the practioner from talking to a person who does not find it easy or pleasant to talk while having a mouth full of hands, a little mirror, spit sucker, teeth picker and floss.

2.  Teach nose breathing
Deep breathing can reduce stress and calm nerves, however it is extremely difficult to use deep breathing while at the dentist.  A great alternative is to focus on breathing through the nose, slowly.  This can also be a great distraction as the attention shifts from mouth to nose.  Practicing in the car or waiting room before the appointment will make a huge difference.

3.  Ask to hear the sounds before each tool is used
Dental equipment makes weird noises.  It is vital that each tool is explained before being put into the patients mouth.  Parents can be great advocates by asking and reminding the practitioner to explain each piece of equipment and allow the child to hear how it sounds.

4.  Choose a safety sign
By choosing a safety sign before the appointment the child can have some control in the experience and have a plan if the appointment becomes too stressful, scary or overwhelming.  This sign could be lifting the left hand, pointing at a parent, or raising a leg.  This sign signifies the need for a break and should be used to prevent biting, hitting or kicking the practitioner.  In order for this to work, everyone in the room must know what the safety sign is.

5.  Make time-out cards
For the extremely anxious child, creating time-out cards can give a sense of control and a more productive visit.  The child must know that the entire exam must be completed, but have the opportunity to take 3-5 breaks if needed.  Make cards that say 15, 30, and 60 seconds.  These cards are held by the child and can be turned in when a break is needed.  When the cards are used up, there may be no more breaks.

Regardless of the amount of anxiety or success of distraction, remember to always be honest.  It's not easy, but it will build a relationship of trust between you and your child AND leave less to the imagination which can often be worse than reality.

For anxious preschoolers, parents can hold them in the chair to encourage a sense of safety and security.  It can also be extremely helpful to show the equipment and hear the sounds before using each tool.  There should be no surprises!


  1. I wasn't aware that parents are still taking their children to the dentists unprepared. You'd think with all the technology we're surrounded with, parents would be more willing to get materials online, so they can prep their children up when trips like going to the dentist come up. Anyway, I sure am glad that you shared those tips with us, Chelsea. I hope you don't mind me sharing that with a couple of friends of mine. Thanks and all the best to you! :)

    Darren Harper @ Arbor Creek Dental

    1. Darren, you would be surprised! I don't think it's because of a lack of resources or willingness, I thinks many adults are unsure what information to give and how much a child can handle so they simply say nothing. This is one of the reasons family centered practices across the country have been hiring child life specialists and seen great success in pediatric care!

    2. Thank you for reading and for sharing as you find fit!