In the US, parents are widely encouraged to bring their little ones in for their first dentist appointment within six months of the first tooth breaking through. With central incisors typically appearing anywhere from 6 - 12 months of age, closely followed by lateral incisors and first molars, children are usually very young the first time they meet their dentists. So how can we ensure our littlest patients feel comfortable?
The Rise of Dentophobia
Unfortunately, making young patients feel at ease in the chair isn’t always easy, and dentophobia — a fear of dentists — is on the rise. According to a report titled ‘Children’s Perceptions of Their Dentists’, published in the European Journal of Dentistry, around 11% of children surveyed said they don’t like dentist appointments, and an additional 12% claimed to be afraid. Overall, it appears that as much as 16% of the school age population have a fear of dentists, so what can we do to help them handle these necessary appointments better?
Below are 4 ways that dentists can help children feel comfortable at their first appointment:
1. Do a Practice Run
A popular method used by specialist pediatric dentists is to keep a small doll, teddy, or action figure nearby to use as a ‘practice run’ model. Before asking a child to take a seat in the chair, get them settled with mom and dad (or whoever has brought them to the appointment) and place the doll in the chair. Explain to the child that you’re going to do a practice run with the doll so that they can better understand what will happen during their appointment. This can help to settle nerves and create calm.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
The European Journal of Dentistry report found that the appearance of some common dental tools and equipment, including dental burs, can enhance anxiety in young patients. This is because children can see them, but don’t understand what they do. Some children may even make up uses for the tools in their head, and we all know how logical children are. A dentist can become a torturer in seconds! In order to help children feel at ease, it’s a good idea to briefly go through the tools that you’ll use, showing kids how they are used (and letting them hear any sounds), rather than telling them.
3. Be Professional
Did you know that your own appearance can make a big difference in how children feel during their appointment? Remarkably, 90% of the children surveyed in the European Journal of Dentistry study said they would prefer their dentist to wear a white coat; an item of clothing that children will have come to associate with helping and healing throughout pediatric doctor appointments. So, while it’s important to be friendly and welcoming to young patients, it’s also important to remain professional at all times.
4. Give Mom & Dad Homework
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a child’s first dentist appointment is making sure they don’t feel alone, and they know they have support in maintaining a happy, healthy mouth. A great tip to ensure that children know this is to give mom and dad (or their guardian) homework — a small guide on helping their child to brush their teeth that they should read up on back home. Getting adults involved is essential, and adult help and supervision when brushing should be in place until children are around 7.
Don’t Sweat It
The truth is that it’s not just dentists who are responsible for helping children feel comfortable at their appointments; a significant portion of the work lies with the parents, and it’s not always easy for moms and dads to settle these nerves in their little ones. If you find that you have a patient who isn’t quite comfortable, don’t sweat it. The most important thing at first appointments is simply getting children accustomed to visiting the dentist… thorough checks and treatments can come along a little later.