My child is afraid of the dentist. Is this normal?

It’s time for your child’s follow-up dental appointment, but deep inside you have a feeling of dread. You’re remembering the dental anxiety of the last try, prior visits, or bad experiences, and your gut feeling says this visit isn’t going to be any better. You’ve tried everything you can think to do, but for some reason there is no improvement.

It’s tempting to throw in the towel and skip your child’s next appointment because, after all, the thought of trying to bring them in is giving you anxiety. However, the stress that you feel only passes on to your child, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

You’re not alone. The good news is that your pediatric dentist in Salem, Oregon, recognizes the many different reasons your child may be experiencing dental anxiety. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Communicate what you’re going through, and we can help!

Kids can experience dental phobia for many reasons.

Children may be afraid of pain or the unknown, as well as the fact that a strange adult will have to stick their hands into their mouth. Or perhaps they’ve had a bad prior experience at a dental clinic.

Some kids deal with sensory overload. The trigger can be anything from an unfamiliar environment to the vibrations of the toothbrush, or the lights that can make children feel anxious and overwhelmed.

Other kids may have heard stories about dental visits—that make them feel leery about the idea of going themselves—due to simply misunderstanding what’s involved. They might not understand that very minimal to no pain is involved in the appointment. And as a parent, there is nothing worse than watching your child experience difficult emotions and not being sure how to best reassure and support them.

Start early.

The good news is that there are lots of things you can do prior to and during your child’s appointment to help them feel empowered and at ease at the dental office and even start to enjoy their visits.

Start early and go to every appointment. One of the reasons it’s so important for your child to have their first pediatric dental visit by their first birthday is because it helps them become familiar with it from a young age. And when something becomes routine, children learn to expect it and be more OK with it.

Watch how you talk about going to the dentist.

Instead of using dental appointments as a threat to try to encourage oral hygiene, use positive language. For example, a comment that instills fear in a child might be, “If you don’t brush your teeth, you might get cavities and have to go to the dentist to get them filled!” Alternatively, encourage your child to brush by saying something like, “We brush our teeth to get them nice and shiny. This keeps them strong and healthy so you can eat all the foods you love!”

It helps if your child views dental appointments as a normal part of life. Going to every appointment helps set this expectation. The more we do something, the more familiar we become with it and the less scary it seems.

Play dentist.

What do kids enjoy more than pretend play? After all, this is how children learn and explore their world. You can play “dentist” at home. Get some dentist toys, try some dentist-themed crafts, read books about teeth and brushing, and even play fun children’s songs about teeth. Just having accurate knowledge and familiarity of something can take away the anxiety-provoking aspect and help it seem interesting and fun.

Prepare for the appointment.

Be sure to explain to your child beforehand about their dentist appointment. Use language that is simple to understand and avoid going into excess detail. There is no need to use words like “shot” or “hurt,” especially with younger kids. Do explain the process of their dental visit. Use neutral, positive terms, and keep it simple. “The dentist will count your teeth and check them to make sure they’re healthy.”

Check in on your own anxiety and center yourself. Staying calm for your child is important. Don’t go into excessive detail about your own dental experiences around your kid, as that can provoke more fear than necessary.

Plan something to do after the dental appointment, but not necessarily as a reward. If you say, “If you’re good and don’t cry, we will go do something  fun,” your child might think, “What’s so bad about it that I might cry?” Instead say, “Today we have a big, fun day planned. First we get to go to the tooth doctor. They’ll check up on your teeth, and after that we will go to the store …”

Call ahead of time. Tell us all about your child’s anxiety and hesitation and ask about accommodations!

Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas)

If the techniques above are not enough to help your child get through their dental visit, we can talk to you about sedation dentistry. Nitrous oxide (or laughing gas) is a safe, easy way we can help your child relax and feel more comfortable in the dental chair.

We understand that different kids have varying levels of anxiety and different needs. We can help you find which accommodation is perfect for your child.

Oral Conscious Sedation

For some kids with special needs or extra dental anxiety, oral conscious sedation provides that extra support to help them get through their appointment. Your child will take medicine by mouth before their appointment that will help them relax and maybe even fall asleep. The effects of the medication are mild, safe, and will wear off a few hours after their appointment. There are varying levels of oral conscious sedation, and we will discuss which level is right for your child.

General Anesthesia

It’s good to know what your options are, and general anesthesia is one option for special situations. Some children (and even adults!) benefit so much from general anesthesia if they are experiencing significant dental phobia or need extensive work done. If every other option has been explored, this option is safe and effective for getting necessary dental work done. As trained pediatric dentists, we’re used to working with children with varying levels of anxiety.

We know how important it is to find a dentist that your child feels safe going to. Spinnaker Pediatric Dentistry is excited to work with your child and provide gentle, accommodating, and effective oral care. We love watching children overcome their fears and build confidence. Feel free to ask us any more questions you may have and tour our office, and if you’re a returning patient, don’t forget to book your next appointment. We’re looking forward to seeing you!