Child Scared of the Dentist: What to Do

Fear of the dentist in children is common. Not every adult goes to the dentist with a smile on their face and in a good mood. It can be considered a legacy of an era when not the most effective anesthetics and loud drills were used to treat teeth, which terrified patients.

When the dentist and baby are mentioned in the same sentence, one often thinks of fears, baby crying, and sick teeth. Indeed, many parents’ first experience with their baby turns out to be very unsettling. And fear of the dentist can be very persistent. Having once had a negative frightening experience, the child remembers it for a long time. It seems to parents that the child won’t remember, but that’s not true – the body remembers and the brain remembers. And the psyche works in such a way that fears can be transformed. If, for example, at the dentist the baby experienced something frightening, he was held and forcibly treated, it was painful, then in the future this fear may develop into any other: a fear of injections in general, a fear of any medical manipulation, a fear of closed spaces. Let’s talk today about how to reduce the likelihood of a child’s fear of going to the dentist? How to raise awareness and treat children with respect?

How to Help Your Child Not Be Scared of the Dentist

We raise our children by example, so if a child is afraid of the dentist even though he or she has never had a dental treatment, it means we’ve done something wrong. Maybe mom or dad avoided going to the doctor or put off going to the office until the last minute, suffering from a toothache. This is how we inherit our fears.

And if the baby has already had a bad experience, the fears are understandable – he or she avoids getting hurt again. By the way, he may be afraid of the dentist after an unsuccessful visit to a doctor of another profile – there is a so-called fear of white coats.

There are many more reasons for this fear, and they are not always related to unconscious transmission of a negative attitude toward the dentist from parents, or a child’s own bad experiences. Below we will talk about the age specifics of each period and the causes of anxiety.

Why does a child become scared of the dentist?

Sometimes fears arise “with the light hand” of parents who frighten: “You won’t brush your teeth, we’ll go to the dentist”, “I’ll call the doctor, he’ll give you an injection”.
Often, fears and traumas after dental treatment arise due to forced coercion. The child feels helpless and doomed in the dentist’s chair.

However, studies confirm that children are more willing to interact with caregivers if they are treated with respect. Therefore, many dentists today take the time to communicate with your child and build rapport.

There are life-threatening situations when there is no time to act. But if there is an opportunity, a competent dentist will always start with adaptation – from the simple to the complex, from familiarity and habituation to treatment.

Developmental Age Peculiarities of Children and Associated Fears

It is characteristic of children to be anxious about the unknown and to experience fears from early childhood. Contact with a stranger may trigger the most positive emotions in an eight-month-old infant. By this age, he or she has already accumulated considerable experience with examinations, vaccinations and routine visits to a variety of doctors.

After the age of three, many babies develop fear at the sight of blood. This adds to the unpleasant experience of various kinds of medical manipulations. As a result, the child is afraid to have their teeth treated even when they visit the dentist for the first time – the reason for this is, among other things, fear of the unknown. In addition, in many cases, in the procedure room, the child is next to a parent, or even on their lap, and when they go to the dentist, they sit in the chair – the lack of close contact increases anxiety. What to do?

Preparation for the dentist’s appointment. What do parents need to do?

  1. Create a positive image of the dentist at home. Don’t frighten the dentist, read books about doctors, tell them that the dentist is a friend. Don’t speak badly about doctors in front of your child.
  2. Don’t threaten! “If you don’t get treatment, your teeth will turn black and fall out” The child will eventually realize that this is not true, and you will lose his trust. “If you don’t agree, I’ll have to hold you.” This makes the child feel unsafe around you, which is bad for the relationship and the child’s psyche. Fear breeds more fear, and our goal is to achieve awareness and cooperation.
  3. Explain in detail what awaits your baby at the dentist’s appointment: what he or she will examine, what manipulations he or she will perform. A common mistake made by a parent is not telling their child about the upcoming treatment. Sometimes they do it out of the best intentions, so as not to worry the baby in advance. But in the end, things get worse – children react to non-disclosure by inventing all sorts of horrors, throwing tantrums afterward and decreasing their trust in their parents. And publicity reduces anxiety.
  4. Play the upcoming visit to the dentist. And in as much detail as possible. If a drill is planned, you can mimic it with, say, an electric brush. Press lightly on the teeth, so that the baby gets used to the pressure. You can put on disposable gloves so that it is also not a surprise. Switch roles in the game. Play only with the child’s consent!
  5. Keep a promise: If you say it will only be an exam, let him have just that experience. No treatment! If there is a possibility of treatment, let them know in advance.
  6. Teach your child to talk freely about his emotions (both positive and negative), this will make your visits to the doctor much easier, improve contact with him and reduce the likelihood of tantrums.
  7. Important: With kids under 2-3 years of age it is quite difficult to agree on treatment of teeth, so do everything in your power to prevent treatment: brush teeth regularly, limit sweets, and give water to drink instead of other drinks.

Teach your child to take care of themselves. Tell him that good hygiene is an important part of life. Let him show independence in this. Let the goal of learning a new skill: brushing teeth properly, rinsing the mouth.

A Child’s First Visit to the Dentist

A child’s first impression is the strongest. If there is no dental experience yet, it is important to make it as pleasant as possible.

The first visit to the dentist is when the first teeth appear. It is usually recommended to visit this specialist at one year, regardless of whether the baby’s baby teeth have appeared. Try to choose a clinic with a friendly attitude on the part of the staff, as well as interesting decorations – this will help the child to get interested, relax and get positive emotions.

It is better that the first visit does not coincide with treatment, let it be an introductory event. The doctor will examine you, get to know your child, and your baby will get a chance to look around, see the instruments, talk to the clinic staff and stay in a comfortable chair. You can reinforce the positive impressions with a symbolic gift for good, calm behavior on such an excursion.

Such a measure will help you to willingly go to the dentist a second time, already for healthy teeth. During the second visit, you can have your child cleaned with a pleasant toothpaste. In the future, the child will be able to get their teeth cared for without fear.

For the little ones (3-5 years old)

Games, cartoons

Young children learn information most easily if it is presented to them with the help of a game. For this case, there are suitable applications that can be downloaded from the Internet and installed on a tablet or smartphone. During the game, the child himself will treat the teeth of different characters. It is important to evaluate the game yourself beforehand, because they may contain treatment scenes (even if they are not scary) using syringes and different tools. If the baby only needs to be prepared for the first examination and he is very scared, it is better to avoid the details about the treatment of teeth.

Scene at home

Play with your baby in the “dentist’s office”, where the patients will be him, as well as dolls and stuffed animals. You play the role of the doctor and parent. Spread “bubbles with vitamins” on the table, take a small mirror and show the “patient” his teeth, tell them that the doctor can splash water into his mouth from a small hose and other least scary situations. Don’t just mention shots, needles and other sharp instruments right away.

When the child gets into the game – switch roles so he/she understands the situation better. Repeat several times.

While brushing teeth

Brushing teeth can also be a step in preparing your child for the dentist’s exam. While brushing, you should talk about teeth, the fact that there are germs that live on them that can mess up your baby’s teeth. And that there are doctors who banish germs and save teeth, but that you have to go to them for a check-up. You can tell them this way long before the appointment, but then the preparation will be easier.

The first visit is just an exam

If the dental situation is not critical, you should not scare children with treatment from the first appointment. First you need to form a positive (or at least not negative) opinion about visiting a dental office. Let the doctor get acquainted with the child and do simple manipulations: examine, splash water in the mouth, take pictures of teeth, and if they are already affected by decay, then apply a silver preparation – “silvering”. With the right approach, this may not only not scare the child, but may even interest them.

To consolidate the result – encouragement

So that the child does not think only about bad things, you need to balance the situation with something pleasant. Promise him or her that after the visit to the doctor you will fulfill a wish. It doesn’t have to be an expensive purchase. The promise of an expensive gift can sometimes even have the opposite effect – to alert the child, giving him a logical reason to think that he will have to experience something difficult. But for each individual case, there may be an alternative – for example, a walk in the park (or elsewhere, depending on the child’s desire), a ride on an amusement ride. If you usually follow a strict daily routine, the day of a visit to the dentist can even be an incentive to watch more cartoons and go to bed later than usual.

Do not forget about the need to keep your promise, even if the visit turns out to be short and easy for your baby. In this case, encouragement is part of the educational process. If you do not do what you said, the child will be upset and the day will leave him with negative memories. The next time it will be harder to convince him to go to the doctor. So do not promise anything difficult, it is better to promise a simple gift, which you will definitely be able to provide.

But do not overdo it. Immediately set the terms: one trip to the doctor is equal to one child’s wish. The first time keep the promise even if the baby was naughty. But the next time, agree that he will receive a gift if he behaves well and obeys the doctor.

For middle-aged children (ages 5-8)

A detailed verbal explanation of the appointment

If your child no longer accepts dentist cartoons and skits with toys as explanations, a different strategy should be chosen. At this age he understands the world around him better, so talk to him accordingly.

Do not forget the main rule – do not cheat. Frightening moments still have to be smoothed out, but if there is a dental treatment, you can not tell your child that he will not feel anything at all or that the doctor will not do anything. You can cautiously warn that it will be a little uncomfortable or even a little painful, but it will pass soon, you just have to be patient. If the child has a tendency to be independent, then emphasize in the conversation that he is already “big”, and therefore he should not be afraid. Try to compare a visit to the doctor with another procedure that doesn’t scare him too much. For example, tell him that if he tolerates taking blood from his finger, then going to the dentist will also tolerate it with ease.

Authoritative Opinion

Children often try to look up to someone older in their environment. If the child has a role model – older friends, brothers or sisters – they can be an influence. You can talk to those whose opinion will be most authoritative and ask to participate in the persuasion. It is unlikely that the child will want to look like a “coward” in front of his friends, rather the opposite, he will want to tell them that he was not afraid of anything.

Visual example

A more difficult in execution, but an effective method – a visual example. The child can watch (at least a little) the treatment of another person’s teeth. It is better if it is one of his parents, a brother, sister or an older friend. This will require some conditions to be met. First, the case should not be very complicated, and secondly, the patient himself should not be afraid – the child should be shown a calm dental treatment, not a long and frightening operation. It is also necessary to warn the dentist in advance to get his support. If the doctor agrees and has free time, he can talk to the child, answer his questions, perhaps let him sit in the chair.

Encouragement Again

If you do not want to promise your child a gift for going to the dentist, so as not to “buy” his good behavior, you may not do so. However, it is still worthwhile to encourage him to have more good impressions after a not too pleasant procedure. So you can “accidentally” decide to go to the movies, take him on rides or at least just walk around his favorite places.

For older children (ages 8 and up)

Children over the age of 8 are usually already familiar with the dentist’s office. If good preparatory work has already been done in the past, and teeth have been treated easily, it is unlikely that you will have trouble convincing your child to visit the doctor. It is more difficult if he still has bad memories and has formed a sense of fear associated with the dentist.

Depending on the character of the child and the situation in general, some of the techniques mentioned above can be applied, or a new approach can be sought.

Different gender dentist

The solution to a child’s fear of the dentist may lie in changing the circumstances of the new visit to the dentist. It is necessary to sort out what frightened the baby the last time.

Sometimes it helps to make an appointment with a doctor of a different gender. If previously treated by a male doctor, you should make an appointment with a female doctor. Perhaps the last time a small child was frightened just by the fact that the doctor was large, with a rough male voice and large hands. In that case, it is better to go to a female doctor who looks and speaks very differently.

But it can also be the other way around. Previously, the baby may have been frightened just the woman – irritable high voice, emotionality or impatience with the experiences of the little patient. If this is the case, try a male doctor. Perhaps, in this case, a calm low voice and lack of fussy movements will have a positive effect on the child’s attitude toward the treatment.

Finding out which doctor the baby did not like last time, do not scold the doctor – this is the wrong approach. Concentrate not on the shortcomings of the previous doctor, but on the possible merits of the next one, and list them for your child.

Convert fear into laughter

Invite your child to draw a picture showing a past bad experience of visiting the doctor. Let him or her concentrate on an image of the doctor if he or she did not like him or her and draw it, transferring his or her emotions to the paper. Most likely, the result will be a ridiculously crooked character who may have overly large glasses, hands, or teeth. Make an emphasis on his ridiculousness and emphasize that this doctor actually has a funny look. You can even involve yourself in the process and draw the picture to make it funny. It is important that as a result the child should be able to laugh at his or her fear.

Stories and serials

Tell your child a kind story about a doctor who helped other people, including children. You can make it up yourself, if you want, or you can take help from the Internet. For the child, cartoons, fairy tales or simply good stories told in language that is understandable to children will do. For an older child, modern soap operas on medical topics are quite suitable, they are eventful and contain humor. Of course, watch the series yourself beforehand and evaluate it.

Orientation to consequences

Usually children after the age of 8 are good at absorbing information and are better able to make logical conclusions. So you can talk to him honestly about the condition of his teeth, the cause of their diseases and possible consequences. Tell him that a spot of decay is able to grow into a “hole”, which, if left untreated, will grow, and the whole tooth will be destroyed and painful. Tell them that the earlier they go to the dentist, the more painless and faster the treatment process will be. State your thoughts clearly, but calmly.

Difficult case

If nothing helps, and the child is still panically afraid of the dentist, does not want to go to him or her, even in spite of reasonable arguments, promises of gifts and even awareness of the probability of further destruction of the tooth, it is worth seeing a child psychologist. In complex cases that require immediate dental treatment, even children may undergo dental surgery under general anesthesia. But if the situation is not that critical, it is better to enlist the help of a specialist in child psychology.

And a few more tips on how to make sure your child is not afraid of dentists

  • Do not stress about going to the dentist, do not emphasize that the procedure may be unpleasant. Going to the dentist should not be something scary and special, let it be as common for the child as a trip to the supermarket.
  • You should not deceive your child and say that the doctor will not do anything, because in reality this is not the case. When the child realizes that he has been lied to, he will become even more afraid of future visits.
  • Don’t say words that might scare the child. Shot/jab, drill, boron – these are definitely not words you should use when going to the dentist with your child.
  • Rehearse the upcoming visit. Let your baby imagine that you are a doctor. Act out a scene of your child entering the room, sitting in a chair, and opening his mouth. Have a contest to see how long he can keep it open. Praise him. Play out all the steps so the child can imagine what to expect.
  • Schedule a visit at a time that is comfortable for the child, not for you!

Conclusion

Although the methods listed are grouped according to age, do not take this division as a firm rule. Depending on the child’s character traits, you can apply advice from different categories. And at 9 years old, you can interest your child in playing dentist on the computer or a similar mobile app. Conversely, a small child may be surprisingly independent and prefer to talk as an “adult” – then you will have to tell him more about the dentist’s work.

Fortunately, it is almost always possible to prepare in advance by searching for information on the Internet (games, cartoons or informative animated videos).

Modern Tooth Treatments

What should you do if your child refuses to let you treat teeth for fear of pain? If he has already experienced discomfort in the dentist’s chair, the task becomes more difficult. There is no magic pill for fear, but there are many modern ways to make treatment painless and comfortable. We are talking about sedation.

This method is only suitable for children who are able to sit in the dentist’s chair, albeit with excitement. Sedation involves the inhalation of nitrous oxide, it is used in children over three years old. It helps to relax, relieve anxiety, and allow the patient to perform all the therapeutic procedures in peace. The child is conscious in this case, the sedation only relieves emotional tension.

For children under the age of three, as well as those who categorically refuse to even open their mouths in the presence of a person in a white coat, anesthesia is appropriate. Treatment in sleep is a more complicated event that requires thorough preparation. It is important to undergo a preliminary examination, as well as to consult with an anesthesiologist. Modern drugs allow you to immerse your baby in sleep without fear for his health.

Major Mistakes of Parents

If a child is afraid of the dentist, the reasons can be different. And it is important to exclude those that are directly influenced by parents. The most common mistakes include:

  • Parents do not motivate the baby for treatment – he does not know why it is necessary and why it is so important.
  • Familiarity with the doctor begins when the tooth already hurts or needs to be extracted.
  • Parents resort to violence – trying to keep a screaming baby in the chair physically. No good will come of such an approach: the doctor will not be able to properly treat a tooth and put a filling in, and the baby will be psychologically traumatized.
  • Parents choose the wrong time to visit, for example, visiting a specialist at a time when the child is used to sleep or is too tired for the day.
  • Deceptive practices – parents promise that the doctor will only look, while a more complicated and unpleasant procedure is waiting for the child.

How to Help Your Child Not Be Scared of the Dentist

Conquer the existing fear in the child can be a few recommendations:

  • Don’t shame your child: we are all afraid of something, and you will only make it worse by forcing your child to be ashamed of his fear, rather than openly talking about it.
  • Go to the dentist regularly, not just when a tooth needs to be treated or extracted. It is important to attend preventive check-ups and go for cleanings – let your child have a pleasant association with the dental chair as well.
  • Communicate with your child, explaining where and why you are going. Do not take him to the clinic by deception – he will lose trust and will not listen to your exhortations the next time you start to explain that “it doesn’t hurt.
  • Set your own example: go to the dentist yourself. Choose a clinic where you can do it with your child, or just talk about your experiences. A visit to the dentist should be an integral part of life.
  • How do you get your child to open their mouth at the dentist? You can’t. You don’t have to force it. If you twist a crying baby or threaten him, it could be the last visit to the dentist. Is your baby rolling in tantrums and not calming down? You’d better head home and try again next time.
  • Hold the baby’s hand or place the baby on your own, sit in the chair yourself. Try to find a clinic where they will meet you halfway and treat your request positively.
  • Promise a reward for your courage, and make sure you keep your promise. Is a tooth extraction planned? Tell your little one that you will take the tooth with you and put it under his pillow for the night, and in the morning he will find a gift from the fairy. Need to get treatment? Plan a trip to the store or buy a welcome gift in advance, give it to the doctor – he probably will not refuse to present his little brave.
  • Play dentist the day before. Invite your child to treat his plush friend, use play sets imitating instruments, let him know how happy his patient is after treatment – now he can eat his favorite foods and feel great.

Choosing the right clinic and doctor makes a huge difference. A specialist who has found a rapport with your baby is able to distract and accommodate him. And the availability of modern materials will allow for an element of play in the therapy process. For example, the dentist could offer to choose the color of the filling or let you touch a non-sharp instrument. A good clinic will accommodate your wishes and allow your child to hold their favorite toy, give them a small present for bravery and courage, or show cartoons while waiting for an appointment. These little things will make a lasting impression on the little patient and create a positive attitude towards dental care.

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Dr. R.Mammadli (Dental Expert Team)

Bachelor in biotechnical medicine. Author of several medical blogs, author of articles on dentistry and oral health.