Preparing for your Child's First Dental Visit
Over 55 Tips and Strategies to Make
Your Child's First Dental Visit a Success!
Aaron and I are preparing for our 2 little girls to go to their very first dental visit. Being adults, we know that many of us avoid the dentist because of occasional discomfort or pain involved with the process as an adult, yet we believe in regular checkups and wanted to make the best and most positive experience for our little girls. Instead of leaving it up to chance, we decided to ask a lot of people through Facebook and other means for different tips and parenting advice so that we would be as prepared as possible. We learned a TON of things through our work and the tips and research of some other people we know who contributed a lot to this great list of ideas, and we are sharing them here for other moms and dads to benefit! Right now, our Gracie is actualy excited for her first visit because we have been using many of these preparatory ideas to prep her and we are ready for her first visit - finally!
Here are 55 different ideas we found along the way
- let us know if you find any of these useful!
1. Dramatic Play - Children learn well from pretending. The parents and the child or even brothers and sisters can join in some fun family time centered around going to the dentist. You can take turns being the dentist and the patient. Don’t forget the other people who work there as well like the hygienist and the receptionist. There is a role for everyone. The more you “practice” the more ready your little one will be for “game day.”
2. Talk to your children about teeth - Talking to your child about teeth can help the trip to the dentist make sense to the child. I would recommend talking about teeth and healthy teeth long before even mentioning going to the dentist. Look into a mirror and have the child describe what they see. What are their teeth for? How do we take care of them? Once the child understands teeth then mention how a dentist helps us be sure our teeth stay healthy so we can continue to eat our favorite foods and flash our beautiful smiles. (Find some links to sites about teeth)
3. Set a good example - As the parent or adult role model in a child’s life, we always want to set the best example we possibly can. In terms of going to the dentist, the best example we can set is to brush daily and never complain about a dental visit. Children are always paying attention and even if his/her trip to the dentist is not planned yet - they may remember the fact that you were complaining about going to yours.
4. Take them on a planned, non-invasive visit – Check with your pediatric dentist to see if they can schedule a time for you to bring your child in for a visit. This way the child can come into the office, meet the people who work there, possibly look at the equipment, and go for a ride in the examination chair. The dentist can possibly even count the child’s teeth so that there is some sort of trust built. This would be a great time to have your child ask questions. Also, many pediatric dental offices actually make this non-invasive first visit a regular part of their practice procedures because the initial investment of time goes a long way.
5. Use your gut feeling – There is nothing like a parent’s intuition. If you feel that your child is not ready for the trip to the dentist then see if you can reschedule. Call the dentist and explain that your child is apprehensive and see if they have anything to offer. If your gut feeling is telling you that this dentist office isn’t for you, then switch. There are many different family and pediatric dental groups out there. Shop around and find the one that fits your family the best.
6. Never introduce fear words or concepts – Never talk about the dentist in a negative way. When you are first discussing the dentist with your child it may be best to never ask them if they are afraid to go. A child who may have never thought about it in this manner may start thinking, “maybe I should be afraid.” Instead, possible say, “it is so exciting that we get to go to the dentist, you are becoming such a big boy.”
7. Bring a stuffy or blanket with them – Having your child bring a comforting item into the exam room with them can help keep them calm. If your child has a favorite stuffed animal the dentist can examine this first. This may help the child develop trust for the dentist. She can then hold on to it tight when it becomes her turn.
8. Children’s dental reading material – There are many books written about a child’s first trip to the dentist or doctor as well as some very affordable DVDs for parents to watch with their children. Here are a few of these books and DVDs that we found for a few bucks at Amazon.com:
Book -Elmo Visits the Dentist
Children can relate to their favorite characters. If they see that Dora was brave when she went to the dentist then maybe they will be too. You can also read children's related educational books about the dentist and what the dentist does. Sometimes the more prior knowledge a child has, the better they will be able to adapt when the actual time comes along.
9. Pick the right dentist – This is a continuation of “trust your gut feeling”. Picking the right dentist can be a difficult task. You can ask friends and family members who they use. Other parents will definitely share their experiences and let you know who they liked or didn’t like and why. However, you have to make your own decisions. Sometimes what works well for one will not work well for another. You may love a dentist that your best friend hates.
10. Make sure they know you will be with them the whole time – The most important person in your child’s life is you. Let them know that you will be with them the entire time. They can squeeze your hand, make eye contact with you, or just simply know that you are in the room. They trust you and know that you aren’t going to let anything bad happen to them.
11. Stay calm yourself – I believe children can sense fear. If you are nervous, your child is going to be nervous. If you are calm, it is more likely your child will be calm. Your behavior needs to show them that there is nothing to worry about. Children often learn fear and safety cues and boundaries from their parents, before they learn them from personal experience. Be a role model and exhibit fun, stability and adventure instead of fear.
12. Let them see a sibling or older cousin (who is brave) do their visit – If you know of an older child (either your own or one close to you) that will be headed to the dentist soon, ask if your little one can go with them. If they are not allowed in the examination room they can still go. It would be beneficial to go and wait for them in the waiting room. This way they can see how they are called back, remain back there for a certain amount of time, and come back in one piece (hopefully with a glowing smile). Make sure your choice of a model child is the right pick and is mature enough to communicate an easy time, because if this older child models incorrectly or has a poor experience, or is unable to cover up the challenges appropriately, this could backfire!
13. Start bringing them in with you and others at a young age – Bringing your child with you or with others from a very young age will make their first trip to the dentist less scary. You want to be sure to have another adult with you because you will not be able to cater to the child’s needs as you are being examined. However, if they are accustomed to the surroundings and see other people they love going to the dentist, it is quite possible they will embrace the opportunity when it is their turn.
14. Have them wear “super” sunglasses to help block out the light – The lights at the dentist office can be really bright. In fact, my dentist offers protective eye wear every time I am in the chair. If your child has a favorite pair of sunglasses have them bring them. They can protect their eyes from bright light and possibly offer them other types of security. You can even go shopping a buy a pair just for the occasion that could possibly possess some sort of “super brave” powers for the dentistry visit. Be sure to clear this idea with the dentist beforehand, and make sure the sunglasses are not too large so as not to be cumbersome or prohibitive for the dentist and hygienists to do their work easily.
15. Have them wear their favorite costume – Children love to play dress up. How many times have they wanted to wear their favorite costume out and about and you have told them no? Well, wearing their favorite costume to the dentist may just be the trick you are looking for. They can pretend they are the character and may be just a little braver. They will also get the attention from the office personnel that they are seeking. Also, be sure that the costume is not too bulky or prohibitive or it might cause a an issue when your child has to get into the dental chair.
16. Watch videos of other successful kid visits – Google to see if there are any videos of other children going to the dentist. Shows like Sesame Street have also covered this topic. Tip – if you are looking up videos on YouTube be sure to pre-watch the show to be sure the content is focusing on the lesson you intended. A little more time invested in the beginning will pay off in a more successful, less troublesome dental visit.
17. Ask the dentist if they have a treasure chest (you could also have a special surprise there waiting for them) – If the dentist does have a treasure chest, you can tell your child that once the appointment is over they get to pick out a treasure. If there is a special trinket they have been wishing for you could have the receptionist slip this into the chest. What a grand surprise it would be when they see the item they have been hoping for waiting for them as a reward at the end of a successful dental visit.
18. Let them examine your teeth – Children are very fascinated with teeth. My daughter (currently a toddler) likes to look in my mouth all the time. You can let them look in your mouth and them ask them questions. What did you see? How did it feel? Why do you think a dentist needs to look in your mouth? What do you think he will see? (try to stay away from negative things like “see mommy wasn’t scared” unless the child brings being scared up first.)
19. Get a kit of play dental tools for the home – If you can get a set of play dental tools your child can become the “Doc McStuffins” of toy teeth. They can examine all sorts of stuffed animals and dolls. You can also get involved in this role playing with them and their stuffed animals and make it a fun and positive experience always. Allow your child to play different roles and ensure that it is all fun. You can even have a lot of fun with this neat Playdoh Dr. Drill N Fill (althought it sounds a little gruesome. . . - it will give you and your child hours of fun role-playing with playdoh teeth.
20. Have them write the dentist a letter – If your child seems anxious and has a lot of questions, they can write a letter to the dentist. In this letter they tell the dentist what it is they are nervous about and ask questions? You can drop the letter off before the appointment and ask them to place it with her chart. This way the dentist can read the letter prior to entering the exam room. He will them know just what to say as soon as he comes in.
21. Show them pictures of people’s teeth that do not go to the dentist – I would use this idea as a last resort. You can find some images of teeth online of individuals who have not taken good care of their teeth by not visiting the dentist. In fact you could place two images next to each other. One of nice clean glowing smile and the other of a smile that isn’t so nice. Then ask the child to tell you about the teeth. Then ask them which one went to the dentist? You can even have your child combine this idea with role playing and their stuffed animals. They can be the parent who helps their stuffed animals learn about the importance of going to the dentist to have the pretty teeth instead of the gnarly teeth.
22. Be honest (don’t tell them you are going somewhere else) – I have heard horror stories about parents telling their child they are going on place, but to only end up going to the dentist. I would never recommend this. Children like to trust that their parents and guardians are always telling them the truth. When the child realizes they are at the dentist and not getting ice cream or riding go-carts, you will lose the trust for sure. Also, deception can help promote fear and make it even worse for future dental events.
23. Don’t be afraid to bribe – This may be an overall generalization, but we have all bribed a kid at one time or another whether it is for the child to do his or her homework or to clean his or her room. Going to the dentist is no different. I am not a believer of huge bribes. I would not suggest telling them if they are good at the dentist that you will get them the latest gaming system. However, I see nothing wrong with getting their favorite ice cream or being allowed to play at their favorite park afterward. It is also good to reward them regardless of the success of this kind of dental visit, unless the child was completely belligerent. Bribes should also be used as a last resort, as many psychological studies of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors show that a child who does not have an extrinsic motivational factor or reward will enhance or build up the internal justification (in their minds), making the visit and their positive behavior a bigger reward in and of itself, which can lead to better and more successful future dental visits.
24. Stories about the Tooth Fairy – Young children love the idea of the Tooth Fairy. You can tell your child about the Tooth Fairy and how she works in your household. However, you can tell your child that she really likes teeth that have been inspected by the dentist. This way, if you go to the dentist you have teeth that have been inspected and once they fall out the Tooth Fairy will pay top dollar for them!
25. Look at pictures of peoples’ smiles and try to make up stories to each other – Sometimes by having your child tell you stories you can learn what it is that is bothering them. If you find a picture of either a person’s smile or of a child at the dentist, they can tell you that person’s story. Listen carefully to the story because you may hear several misconceptions.
26. Tell them a positive story about your first trip to the dentist – Every time my daughter gets sick, hurt, or enters a new situation she asks me, “has that happened to you?” Telling your child positive stories about your past gives them comfort, so that if they are experiencing something similar, that they too will have a positive experience.
27. Practice deep breathing and positive self-talk – If a child seems to be over anxious about visiting the dentist, parents can practice breathing and positive self-talk. Teach them that if they start to feel really anxious before or during the exam they can take deep breaths to help calm them down. They can tell themselves that everything will be ok and what they are doing is a good thing. It is also a good idea to practice this weeks in advance on other alarming situations where your child responds in fear or becomes “worked up”. If they develop a routine during other anxiety triggering events, and look to you for a calming and breathing exercise, then you can help them respond this way in the event they are triggered with fear at the dental visit.
28. Give them a safe word they can say to let the dentist know he/she needs to slow down or step away When planning the trip to the dentist with your child, you can come up with a word or hand gesture (since they may not be able to talk at the moment) that if she uses it you and the dentist know that it just go a little too intense. The dentist and hygienist should also be made aware of this signal. Having a signal gives the child the power to control the situation. He will probably be very surprised at the end that he never needed to use it. Also, when children feel completely out of control in a scary situation, it can build a more negatively entrenched fear experience that can be more difficult to overcome in the future.
29. If the office has televisions in the exam room see if you can have their favorite show on – My children are always watching their favorite Nickelodeon or Disney show during their exams. It can definitely help reduce the nerves and bring a little bit of normalcy to the situation. Anything that is a reminder and a comforter from their safe, home environment can be used as long as it is not prohibitive to the process or procedures that the dentist or hygienists need to perform.
30. For severe anxieties speak to the office about nitrous oxide – Sometimes there are situations where children are extremely anxious or have other medical reasons where extreme measures should be taken. In these cases, nitrous oxide can be used to help calm the child. My daughter once had to use it for a dental procedure. It made her calm and relaxed, but she was still alert. If this is a step that you feel you may need to take, I would suggest talking to both your dentist and pediatrician. The professionals can help with which method is best for your child.
31. Take a cue from your child, sometimes less talk and preparation is better – Sometimes the more we talk about things the more anxiety we build. If your tell your child he will be visiting the dentist, and he says “OK” It may be best to just leave it at that. He may already have the background knowledge needed or never once thought of a dental visit as a nerve wracking experience. If this is the case, let it go. There is no need to create an issue by trying to ease an issue that does not exist in the first place.
32. Never focus on pain, but don’t lie – Your child is going to ask, “Mommy, will it hurt?” You can say things like, “the dentist will do his best not to hurt you”, “if it does it will be so quick you won’t even notice”, or “don’t even worry about that, you are going to love (then say what you are doing afterward).”
33. Do not negotiate the dental visit, not going is not an option – Don’t give your child the option of going or not (as if there really is an option). Don’t say things like, “don’t you want to go get your teeth looking all shiny”, or “don’t you want to go get that ice cream afterward?” This gives them the option to say no! If they say, “I don’t want to go to the dentist.” Simply tell them that this is something we have to do like eating healthy, taking baths, and washing hands. “We need to go to continue to grow strong and healthy.” The last thing you want to do is communicate that the dental visit is optional and end up in tug of war with your child.
34. Offer a fun activity after the visit and do not base it on good behavior. They get the activity for completing the visit regardless of whether they act out or not – Let your child know that after the dentist visit you will do something enjoyable. It can be getting ice cream, going to the park, or visiting with a friend. Do not focus this incentive on good behavior. If you tell them that it is only if they are good, you are putting added stress to the situation. They may be so focused on not crying and getting upset that they…. start crying and getting upset. Therefore, the good behavior is simply going to the dentist. Regardless of how well the appointment goes, follow up with the rewarding after activity.
35. Accept your child’s feelings – Your child is going to feel how they feel and we need to accept that it is ok to be nervous. We should never say things like, “stop being a baby”, or “why are you afraid your big brother as never afraid.” Accept their feelings for what they are and work through some of the other strategies like telling stories to see where the feelings are coming from and talk about using signals to take a “time out” if things get a little too intense to handle.
36. Have the dentist explain everything he is doing and why he is doing it – I believe that knowledge is power. If the dentist is explaining what the tools are and how he is going to use them there will be no surprises. If something is going to tickle or pinch a little let the child know. This way she can be prepared and nothing catches her off guard. This also goes along with knowing your child. One child might do better with more detail whereas another one of your children might do better with less, or even a different kind of distraction.
37. Have them bring a squeeze ball or other personal stress reliever or distraction – You can try having your child use something that he or she can squeeze or fiddle with during the exam. This should be introduced to the child well before the trip to the dentist. Possibly have it on the table during craft time or hand it to them to hold at different times during the day. Tell them when they are at the dentist they can squeeze this if they feel the need to (your hand is also something they can squeeze). Any comfort or anxiety release practice helps. Anything familiar and safe from home falls into this same category.
38. If you are too anxious have a grandparent or spouse go with them – Sometimes it is the parent that is extremely anxious and not the child. I have a friend who said that when she took her daughter to her first visit she was the one who passed out. This definitely is not the experience we want our child to have. So if you yourself have dentist anxieties or cannot handle seeing your child in slight discomfort then maybe it is time for another trusted adult in the child’s life to take over.
39. Have them wear headphones – Some children are sensitive to sounds and let’s admit it some of those dental tools make some crazy sounds. Ask the dentist if it would be alright if the child listened to headphones during the exam. This may help your child to relax. Make sure they know they can’t sing along to their favorite songs while the professionals are working, but when it is all said and done.. sing away!
40. Notify the office it is the first visit. Make sure the dentist knows what works and doesn’t work with your child. If he or she has any special little quirks – Sometimes a child has some special quirks or behaviors that if the office can be made aware of beforehand can make the whole trip easier for everyone. Your dentist will be appreciative if he is made aware of these so that he can stay away from certain triggers or to know that your child may react differently than other children. Communication and a team plan is the key to a successful visit. You will also want to be sure that your dentist will back off at the pace of the cues you or your child communicates.
41. Have your child create his own “dental preparation kit” to bring with them – Give your child a small box or bag and have them load it with things they feel they need for the dentist. Go through the items together and have him explain the purpose of each one. Don’t discredit his ideas, just simply listen and tell him how thoughtful it was. Then bring the kit with you to the dentist. Chances are he will never pull anything out of that bag. Also, it is good to agree on a limit of the number of items your child can bring. Be agreeable and reasonable, making sure it does not become a point of haggling or struggle with your child, but 3 to 5 items should be agreeable with most children.
42. Give your child some of the control – Giving your child some of the control is easy. Many of the other ideas are examples of how your child has the control. For example, letting them choose their outfit or costume that you normally wouldn’t let them wear out of the house is a good way to give them some control. Where are you going to go afterward? What is the agreed upon signal if they need a break? All of these are ways to let your child feel as though they have control over the situation.
43. Schedule the appointment during your child’s positive time of day, do not interrupt nap or meals – This is a no-brainer. You want to have your child at the dentist during the part of the day they feel the best. This will alleviate unneeded temper tantrums due to being tired and/ or hungry. This is very important. For us parents who have violated this concept for a trip to the zoo or other activities, we understand that a solid routine is good for their sense of stability and safety, while helping to preserve your own sanity!
44. Make the trip to the dentist office and the wait fun – The trip there should be fun to take your child’s mind off of where you are going. Have her favorite music loaded and ready to go so you can sing in the car on the way. Tell each other some funny jokes. If they have a hand held game system let them have some play time in the waiting room.
45. Never threaten going to the dentist as a punishment – Never say, “If you don’t brush your teeth I am going to take you to the dentist to pull them out!” (This is rather extreme, but you get the idea). The dentist is not a punishment, even if they have a cavity the dentist is there to help and never hurt.
46. Make up a song together about teeth and the dentist – Children love to sing and make up songs. Creating a song to their favorite tune about going to the dentist could be a lot of fun. How excited will they be to sing the song to the office! If you cannot carry a tune in a bucket, then perhaps your spouse, friend or relative can help with the creativity. You might also be able to find some other songs on Youtube that you and your child can learn. Just be sure to pre-screen the audio and video first!
47. Draw a picture for the dentist to hang in his office – Many children love to draw and color. Have the child create a picture for the dentist that they have to hand deliver. This way when they get there, the ice will be broken with a beautiful picture that the dentist can hang (if even for a moment) in the exam room or office. This will help make the child feel welcomed.
48. Make the first visit a “well check-up” do not address negative issues at this appointment - Many pediatric dentists will schedule a non-invasive first visit where they just open the mouth and put their fingers in for a bit and do no dental work at all so it warms this child up with the least invasion possible. The dentist can count how many teeth they have and let them know that it looks like they are doing great job brushing. So, next time when they are getting a little more done, the child doesn’t lock their lips shut.
49. Help the child come up with a joke to share with the dentist or show them their favorite magic trick – Having your child share their talents with the dentist whether it is a joke, a trick, or telling them how they scored a goal in soccer will help the child feel comfortable. These conversation points will make the child feel as though they are making a new friend. Doctors, nurses, and hygienists do this all the time even with adults. The last time I was at the dentist I felt like I was at a book club because we were reading the same novel.
50. Know the names of the receptionists and hygienists so when you are there, you can talk openly and friendly with them. Your child will think you are long-time friends. – When you are comfortable your child is more likely to be comfortable. If you can walk into the office and say, “Hi, June how are you,” your child will catch on to this as a friendly place. This will also make them feel more comfortable when they hear their name being called. I know my daughter always asked, “how do they know my name?”
51. Have fun with decorative name tags that your child can wear and they can even make name tags for the staff and dentist to wear while there – Just like when you go there and know the office personnel by their names, you can create name tags for yourself and the others in the office. Have your child decorate a name tag for everyone working that day (you can call and ask), then have her hand deliver them. This will be a fun social activity for everyone and definitely help put the child at ease.
52. Follow up visit gifts - Have the child after the first non-invasive visit go home and make little gifts to bring back to each staff member they met –This is great if your child likes to make crafts. When they return for their actual checkup, they can bring handmade gifts to give to the staff and dentists and it will be a nice warming up process and a friendship building process for your children. Make sure this is planned with the staff and that they really respond positively and make a big deal or thank you process out of it to make the child feel special.
53. Know your child- Not all children handle all situations the same. They say that no two snowflakes are alike, and children are far more diverse than this. If you have more than 1 child, it will be clear to you that your children are more diverse than snowflakes. Knowing how one child reacts and what works to alleviate anxiety for that child will often be completely different than the necessary procedures for another child. Knowing your children is one of the best forms of preparation a parent can be armed with in order to ensure a successful dental visit.
54. Use calming essential oils - Sometimes there are some easy ways to apply therapeutic essential oils to help calm your child. Essential oils, such as Lavender oil, have been used for centuries to bring a stabilizing effect to emotions that are manic as well as those that are mildly depressed or depleted. Lavender essential oil is an adaptogen that also helps people respond more favorably to stressful situations, lowering the blood levels of cortisol that is excreted into the bloodstream during a “flight or fright” scenario. If you can use Lavender oil to help calm your child during other stressful events at home, it can also work if and when they become a bit nervous at the dental office. In addition to the calming effect, if Lavender is used consistently enough to bring peace at home, the smell centers of your child's brain is closely associated with types of memories. Lavender can help trigger a more positive, calming series of memories and help bring a child back to a sense of safety and well-being if this is used consistently at home for a period of time.
55. Stay off the smartphone! It is becoming more habitual for people and parents to bury themselves into technology or smartphones, giving the technology the much needed eye contact, touch, reassurance and sense of stability that only you can provide. If it is too tempting, turn the phone off or leave it in a concealed place in your car where it will not be sighted or stolen. Your child is worth 45 minutes of sacrificing your social media life so invest in your children's success at the dentist and it will pay dividends for years to come.
We hope you have enjoyed many of these ideas that other people have helped us put together! Please drop us an email or let us know if this was helpful in preparing your child for his or her first visit to the dentist!
About the Authors: Aaron & Jennifer Schulman are proud parents of 3 wonderful girls and they recently did a lot of research and asked some other people to help them compile this list as they preparing their little ones for their first dental office visit. Aaron has worked in the dental industry as a marketing consultant, and currently works on the Advisory Board for 5th Avenue Acquisitions & Venture Capitalists who specialize in helping dentist who are getting ready to sell a dental practice. They also specialize in private financing for up to 100% of a dental practice loan for recent dental school graduates, dentists who are looking to expand their practice, buy a dental practice for the first time or buy and additional practice. You can read more about them at 5thaavc.com.