Dreading one's upcoming dental appointment has become a frequent punchline for adults -- however, in many cases, the stress or nervousness associated with a dental visit begins in childhood. If your fear of the dentist causes you to not seek treatment or schedule checkups as frequently as you should, you may be looking for ways to gently acclimate your child to regular dental appointments so that he or she can enter adolescence and adulthood with a healthy attitude toward dental treatment.
Read on to learn more about when you should begin to schedule your child's dental appointments, as well as steps you can take to make this experience more pleasant for both you and your child.
At what age should you first take your child to the dentist?
Although many parents don't make their child's first dental appointment until just before his or her third birthday, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) recommends that this appointment take place much sooner -- at age 1 or even earlier if your child was a quick teether.
This advice may be much different than the dental schedule recommended when you were a child -- however, advances in dental technology and research have indicated that children who seek dental exams and treatment early in their lives have much better lifelong outcomes than children who don't have their first dental appointment until they're nearing school age. And although you may assume that baby teeth are somewhat expendable, these teeth can provide the framework for the permanent teeth, so taking good care of baby teeth should be a priority.
What can you do to make this experience less stressful for your child?
Your child's first dental appointment can be an exciting but stressful experience -- for both parent and child. There are a few things you can do to help prepare your child for this visit and make the process run smoothly.
During the first dental appointment, it's unlikely the dentist will perform a cleaning or take other action -- the purpose of the first appointment is primarily to acclimate your young child to the idea of a stranger putting gloved hands in his or her mouth. Once your child becomes comfortable with this process, the dentist will be able to perform cleanings and other procedures during future appointments.
Your first step may involve calming your own jitters. Young children tend to look to their parents for guidance whenever they find themselves in a new or strange situation. If your child can see that you are nervous, he or she will likely view the dentist as a suspicious stranger. On the other hand, if you're relaxed during the visit, your child will see the dentist as a friendly presence and will be much more likely to permit a physical examination.
You may also want to engage in a little role-play before your first appointment. If your child doesn't already have a soft-bristled toothbrush, now is the best time to purchase one. You can practice brushing your teeth with your child to diminish the "newness" of having strange objects in his or her mouth, and may even play pretend dentist by peering into each other's mouths or counting your teeth.
What are your options if your child won't physically permit a dental examination?
If several attempts at performing a dental examination have been unsuccessful, you have a couple of options.
First, you can make an appointment with a dentist that specializes in (anxious) young clients. These dentists are often specially-trained in ways to interact with children at their own level, and explain the process in a way they can understand -- diminishing their anxiety. Pediatric dentists offices are bright, colorful, and cheerful, and your child may enjoy watching cartoons or playing with hand puppets during his or her exam.
However, if even an appointment with a pediatric dentist has left your child in hysterics, he or she may benefit from sedation dentistry. This will require you to administer a liquid sedative an hour or two before the appointment so that your child is calm by the time you arrive. In most cases, this medication will not actually put your child to sleep, but will simply make him or her more compliant with the dentist's instructions and less likely to work him- or herself up into a frenzy upon arrival at the dentist's office.