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Before You Take Your Child to the Dentist

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Most children don't exactly look forward to a visit to the dentist, but children with special needs may react with particular terror and misbehavior. If dental appointments are endless battles for you, your child, and your tooth-care provider, try these tactics for making exams less tortuous for all concerned.

Use a pediatric dentist.

A dentist who is specifically trained and experienced in dealing with children will likely be more tolerant of wiggles and whines. See if you can interview the dentist before bringing your child to find out if he or she has worked with children with special needs, and be forthright about your child's struggles with things like being held down, having his mouth touched, bright lights, strong smells, or other potential problems. If a dentist expresses any reluctance in dealing with these issues, look elsewhere.

Hold on to a good hygienist.

Often, the dentist is only present for a small portion of your child's visit, and the most difficult and hands-on work will be done by a dental hygienist. If you find one who has a nice rapport with your child, or who seems to work with particular speed or gentleness, get that person's name and find out which days he or she usually works. Make a special request for that hygienist when setting up your child's appointment. It will give your child a welcome familiar face, and make sure that success can be repeated from visit to visit.

Teach your child what to expect.

Your child will be less apprehensive if he or she has some idea of what to expect from that dentist appointment. Use books and role-playing to walk your child through the things he will see or experience. Tammy Davenport, the About guide to Dental Care, has a great photo gallery of a child's dentist appointment that you can print out, paste onto pieces of construction paper, and tie together to make a booklet for your child to study and refer to. Then, when you actually arrive at the office, it won't be as scary and unfamiliar.

Pick a low-stress, high-success time.

When is your child most likely to be relaxed and able to cope with the stress of a dentist visit? If he's wired up after school, that may not be the best time. If she hates to lose the routine of a school day, taking her out for an appointment may add to the strain -- although if she's happy to get out of school, it may be just the right time to pick. Think about the time of day or time of the week when your child is most likely to have a successful experience, and try to schedule appointments then. Don't let anything else go on that day to tip the balance.

Prepare for waiting.

Your child will likely spend long minutes in the waiting room, wait in the chair, and have down time between tooth cleaning and tooth exams. Be sure to have a deep bag of tricks to occupy all those idle moments. An iPod or electronic game may be a good gadget to have along, and tuck our list of things to do when there's nothing to do in your bag or memory bank to fill time when you've run out of everything else.

Keep dental care going all year.

Heavy plaque and tender gums and cavities can turn a moderately difficult exam into endless screaming agony. If your child hates to have his teeth looked at, he probably doesn't want to brush them either, but keep trying. Experiment with many styles and sizes of brushes, and shades and flavors of toothpaste. Ask your child's dentist for advice on rinses or gums or other products that might help a child who just can't bear to brush, and if your child sees an occupational therapist, ask him or her for suggestions for kids with sensory sensitivities or coordination problems.

Mind your own mouth.

Do you make a big deal about your child's dental hygiene and then neglect your own? Let your child be your tooth "coach" as you work to remind each other of brushing, flossing, and dentist appointments. Making your little one the family tooth "expert" may reduce apprehension when it comes to visiting the real thing. And if nothing else, you won't have to worry about toothaches or tooth problems making you any crabbier when dealing with behavioral flare-ups.
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