At what age should a child visit the dentist or oral hygienist for the first time? And how do you prepare a child – and yourself – for their first trip to the dentist or oral hygienist? The answer is obviously different for each child, but the aim is to have a child in the dental chair as soon as they are willing to.
It is definitely possible to get a child through childhood and even adulthood without dental decay or gum disease. So, the sooner a child is given the opportunity to have a dental exam and cleaning, the better – that can be at any age from around two and a half.
How to prepare your child for their first visit to the dentist
Take them along to your appointment
I often advise parents to bring their child along to their own dental appointments. When the child accompanies the adult, I use the opportunity to let them get comfortable with the new surroundings – and me. As soon as I see that they are comfortable enough to allow me to proceed, only then do we make an appointment for them.
Tell them what to expect
As parents we are very eager to tell our children where we are going to go on holiday and what to expect. We’ve all sat in an airplane and heard how a dad is explaining every single detail about the airplane to the child. Everyone knows the value and benefit of familiarity rather than the element of surprise. So, why not doing the same with the dentist/hygienist as well?
Use simple language
Use simple terms that your child can associate with. These include phrases like: the dentist will brush your teeth. The dentist will count your teeth. The dentist will take pictures of your teeth. Convey the information in a positive, calm manner as if it is no big deal.
If it is possible, discuss this with your hygienist or dentist before you bring your child for the first appointment and let them guide you in what to say and what not to. There are also lovely educational storybooks, games and programs on “going to the dentist” that will help prepare your child on what to expect.
Know what NOT to say
Try not to use words like: hurt, drill, shot, pain. Don’t even say things like, “It’s not going to hurt.” Try not to use any negative words at all.
Don’t project your own fear of the dentist on to your child
Children are sensitive and tuned into our non-verbal communication. If you have an underlying negativity regarding the dentist, or anything else for that matter, you will have difficulty hiding it unless you make a concerted effort. Although you may have had a negative experience at the dentist, with technology and the new techniques used in dentistry, there is no reason to create a perception of fear. Choose a dental practice that is child friendly and focus on prevention of tooth decay.
A visit to the hygienist might be less invasive than a visit to the dentist
In some cases, going to the hygienist can be less overwhelming. Maybe it’s because we try to make the environment more child friendly. Maybe it’s because most hygienists are women. Maybe it’s because there are not as many intimidating equipment in our surgeries.
But whatever the reason, certainly in the dental practice where I work, the children feel more at ease to come to me than the male dentist. Maybe start off with the hygiene visit and see how that goes. The hygienist will be able to guide you as to when it is necessary to start going to the dentist or if there is something that urgently needs attention from the dentist.
Mind your words at the appointment
So often the first appointment with a child is going so well and then the parent decides to ask something like, “Is it sore my angel?” Immediately the child starts thinking, “Is this supposed to be sore?” Or a parent will say something like, “If you don’t sit still the lady is going to pull out all your teeth!” It might be a joke, but the result is catastrophic. In the treatment room, even something like, “Are you doing all right? Is everything fine?” might be interpreted as “this is not supposed to be so easy”. Rather show your appreciation for your child’s good behavior and achievement after the appointment.
Leave it to the experts
If you feel the need to accompany your child into the treatment room, please sit quietly and let the hygienist or dentist work with the child. In fact, if the child is old enough, it’s often better if the child is alone with the hygienist or dentist – sometimes children act up when the parents are present. The hygienist or dentist is quite capable of dealing with the child.
Take responsibility for your child’s diet and oral hygiene
It is the responsibility of the parent to ensure that oral hygiene care is practiced with regular intervals and with efficiency. A preschool or even primary school child doesn’t have the ability or the sense of responsibility to take control of their oral hygiene routine. But it’s not just about doing an exam and cleaning your child’s teeth – a parent should build the necessary trust so that in the unfortunate event of a child having to have dental work done, they associate it with something good and beneficial, rather than a traumatic experience.
How to prepare yourself for your child’s first dental visit
Being a mother myself, I understand that our main focus and primary concern is to protect our children. Prepare yourself for your child’s first visit to the dentist or oral hygienist by reminding yourself that the appointment is about them, and what’s good for them. Be mindful that this is a chance for your child to slowly start taking some responsibility for their own oral health – allow them to speak for themselves when a question is asked. And try not to be overprotective. Give your child a fair opportunity to establish a good, positive relationship with their oral health care provider.