It is an honor to see a child for their very first dental appointment. Having seen countless numbers of children for their first dental visit, I have come to recognize ways parents can help the appointment to be more successful.
A child’s first dental visit can set the tone for future dental appointments. My goal, as a pediatric dentist, is to create a positive experience by keeping the mood light, taking extra time to introduce our dental instruments, and using verbiage that will allow the child to feel comfortable in this new environment. The first dental visit is as much for the parents as it is the child. It is the parent’s responsibility to discuss issues with cleaning at home or any dental concerns. It is the dentist’s responsibility to instruct the parent on the most recent dental recommendations as well as to address the parents’ concerns to set the child up for healthy dental habits at home. It is extremely important for the parents and dentist to be on the same page and, as a team, work together to give the child the best possible dental health.
1. Stay Positive
Many people experience anxiety when it comes to visiting the dentist. The anxiety typically stems from a negative experience that occurred in the past. It is important to shield your child from these feelings. Children are sensitive to their parent’s emotions and can become anxious if they know their parent is afraid of the dentist. Dentistry has changed drastically over the past 20 years and continues to change daily to allow for a better dental experience.
2. Brush Your Child’s Teeth at Home
Setting your child up for a positive dental experience starts at home. If a child sees a toothbrush and a toothbrush being regularly used at home, then when they come to the dentist, although the environment is new, they will see familiar items and understand what they are used for. People are comfortable with the familiar, and oftentimes anxiety stems from the fear of the unknown.
3. Use the Right Words
In becoming a pediatric dentist, I developed a language all my own. It is important to translate what is being done or what a child will feel into words they can relate to and be okay with. Avoid the S-H-O-T word at all costs, especially prior to the first visit. Unless it is an emergency visit, there is no need for an injection at the first visit. This goes along with cleaning at home. I cringe every time I hear a parent say, “If you don’t let me (or the dentist) brush your teeth, you are going to get cavities, and the dentist is going to give you a shot.” Threats like this are scary, unnecessary, and make the child afraid of going to the dentist.
Instead tell your child, “The dentist is going to brush your teeth and may take some pictures of your teeth.” In my office, the dental explorer is called a “tooth counter.” The suction becomes “Mr. Thirsty.” The air is “wind.” The water is my “squirt gun.” The mirror is called my “Barbie mirror.” And so, it goes. Perhaps one day I will be asked to write the Milling Pediatric Dental Dictionary, but until that day arrives, I will continue developing its vocabulary.
4. Read a Book
Numerous books and characters go to the dentist. If your child likes Peppa, there is a book for that. If your kid likes Daniel Tiger, there is a book for that. The Berenstain Bears? You got it. There is a book for that. No book will ever be able to explain the exact dentist and dental office because all offices are different, but the general idea and themes will be there. Often children want to experience what their favorite characters experience. Now, if only I could get Spiderman to go to the dentist.
5. Do Not Make It a Big Deal
Going to the dentist for the first time is a big deal, and I would never want to cheapen it. It is a milestone in our little children’s lives, and as mothers, we want every milestone to be picturesque. What if they misbehave? What if they cry? What if they spit in the dentist’s face? What if they bite the hygienist? How will this reflect on my child or my parenting? Do not go down the rabbit holes of “what ifs.”
If your child is young, it is perfectly normal for a few tears to be shed. Does your child cry or fight you at home when brushing? Then why would it be any different at the dentist. If I may be so bold as to give another piece of advice, do not hover. Give your child and the dentist space so a trusting relationship can be built. Parents are the ultimate authority in a child’s life. Even though a parent’s intentions are often to be helpful, when a parent interjects reprimands or encouragement, it detracts from what the dentist is saying and doing. It can be confusing to a child to hear multiple people telling them what to do. A child always hears a parent over any other authority figure. Although they do not always do what we say, as parents, they are always listening for that familiar voice they know and love.
If you keep in mind these five things, you will set your child up for a great first visit. And if the appointment goes south, do not be too hard on yourself or your child. Go into the appointment with an open mind, and give your child the opportunity to flourish in this new environment.