When I was a kid, I HATED going to the dentist with a passion. My Mom never went back with me (not sure if this is because she wasn’t allowed or because she had to sit with my brother in the lobby) and the shy child in me hated being alone. In addition, it was torture sitting still for so long. I hated feeling the grit of the toothpaste between my teeth and I despised the end of the visit when they would have you swish the flouride in your mouth for what seemed like an hour. Always wanting to be a good kid, I was also terrified that I would be told I had a cavity. I never did, and I loved placing that gold star on my picture that told the pre-HIPAA world that I had perfect teeth.
While dentistry has made some excellent strides (no more swishing flouride!) since I was a child and it isn’t quite as horrible as it once was, I still despise it. Even to this day, I find myself mid-cleaning, with my feet and hands clenched so tightly that I have to consciously tell myself to relax. I still cringe as I wait for the news about whether or not I have a cavity.
When it came time to take my kids to the dentist, I wanted to handle it correctly. No one loves going to the dentist, but I also didn’t want them to dread it the same way I always have. I am a big believer in preparation, honesty and normalization when it comes to medical experiences. So that is the approach I took when introducing my kids to the dentist and so far, so good. I am two for two and they don’t seem to have the same hatred for the experience that I do. At least not yet. So here are my tips for preparing your kids for their first trip to the dentist office for a cleaning.
- Choose your dentist wisely. I actually still go to the same dentist that I went to as a child, so it was only natural to have my children go there as well. (My hatred was never for them, only for the experience at its core.) I am comfortable with the staff in the practice and I trust them to take good care of my kids. However, I will say that dentistry is a field where there is benefit to making sure that whoever you take your child to is truly comfortable working with children. This may mean exploring a specifically pediatric dentist if you don’t feel comfortable simply taking the littles to your dentist.
- Don’t rush into the first visit. I have heard varying opinions on when children should first see the dentist. My dentist did not feel like they needed to see the girls until they were 3, but I have heard of several people who have taken their children at 2, even 1 year of age. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, what you want to be cautious about is taking them before they are ready and risking setting the whole experience off on the wrong foot. You can’t easily undo a bad experience. You get one chance to make a good first impression and if this means waiting a bit until they are a little older and more prepared, then do it. Just make sure you are brushing their teeth.
- Let them observe first. I took both of my kids to the dentist to watch a cleaning before bringing them back to have their own. My oldest actually laid on my stomach and watched while I got my teeth cleaned and the hygienist did a great job explaining to her what all of the tools were for and what she was doing. My youngest got to go watch her sister get her teeth cleaned, while I told her about what was going on. Not only does this give the kiddos information about the experience before they have to do it themselves, but it also sets it up to be something exciting. “You get to have a turn in the chair next time we come!” It becomes a right of passage, about growing up.
- Acknowledge the sensory experience. This is especially important if you have a child with sensory issues, but even for the average child, some of the sensations and sounds that are involved in dental cleaning can be scary. The electric toothpaste sounds like a drill, the water sucker is loud and feels weird when you “kiss” it, the floss, the plaque scraper (with it’s pointy tip!) and even just someone’s fingers in your mouth can be strange sensations. Encourage them to ask questions and do your best to normalize the sensory experience. If they need breaks during the first couple of cleanings or have to cut the first one short because it’s just too much… that is okay too.
- Sunglasses. A lot of dentists do this one on their own, but if not, having a pair of sunglasses on hand can be helpful. It will allow the child to keep his/her eyes open with the light shining on them as having to close them might increase anxiety.
- Trust the staff and follow their lead. Remember that while this is a new experience for you and your child, it is not the first time the staff has had to work with a child. They should have tricks up their sleeves that help them successfully navigate those cleanings with the little ones. As a parent, you can certainly advocate for things you feel will help your kid master the experience, but also try to follow the lead of the hygienist and dentist. They want your child to have a great experience too.
Do you have any tips or tricks for parents approaching that first teeth cleaning with their little one that I don’t have on my list? Share them in the comments!