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Preparing for Your Child’s First Dental Visit

Updated on June 7, 2011

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that a child see a dentist by their first birthday. Some parents may feel that this is too early, and perhaps that their child is not ready for the experience or that it isn’t really necessary. No matter how many children you have had, you know that there is always a great deal to learn about each little one’s unique personality and about caring for their unique health needs. These early dental visits are much more than exams and cleanings… they play a very important role in helping your child develop attitudes and oral health habits that will ensure a lifetime of healthy smiles.

Most importantly, from the very first visit your child begins to develop a trusting relationship with the dental team in his or her new dental home; and parents have the opportunity to learn homecare techniques customized for their child.

As parents, we want to comfort our children and prepare them for new experiences, but it is very important to remember not to transfer our own anxiety to our children on the process. Remember too, that the child has no expectation that anything will hurt or be unpleasant unless someone else makes a suggestion that gives him a reason to be afraid. A first visit should be a positive, happy experience that will encourage the child to want to cooperate and return for future visits. How should you prepare your child? Here are some tips:

DO try to schedule appointments early in the day when children are well rested and not hungry.

DO explain that it is important to visit a dentist to keep our teeth healthy. There are several excellent children’s books available to help with the preparation- try bringing one home in advance to introduce the subject with your child.

DO build excitement about the experience.

DO tell the child enough that she will know what to expect: “the dentist will count your teeth, and make them shiny, and maybe take some pictures!”

DO remain calm and positive in the exam room. Provide supportive coaching for your child.

DO reward your child’s good behavior- but be understanding about what this means. A few tears are okay.

DO be firm and flexible. It is important that the dental team and the parent – not the child be in charge of the appointment. Of course, we want to do the examination and cleaning, but we don’t necessarily have to perform every planned procedure (x-rays, fluoride, etc.) for the appointment to be a success.

DO bring your child along to a sibling’s appointment so he can watch what happens before it is his turn (but make sure that the child who is being watched is not likely to cry or be upset by the procedure). However…

DON’T encourage your child to watch an adult having their teeth cleaned up-close, especially if some bleeding is likely. That can be pretty scary for children; and furthermore, an adult cleaning is usually much more involved than a child’s cleaning and therefore not a very good example of what to expect.

DON’T use words like hurt, needle, x-ray, shot, or cavity. Children are very sensitive to words that they may not fully understand and even though they had no expectation about being hurt, they will once you have use the word!

DON’T wait until there is an emergency to schedule your child’s first visit. It’s hard to have a positive when something hurts!

DON’T tease or threaten. Parents sometimes try to lighten the mood with humor, but what may seem like an obvious joke such as, “Sarah wants to have all her teeth taken out” – doesn’t seem silly or funny to a child who is confused and in a stressful environment. Children may act out because they don’t have a good way to express their anxiety…threatening to take away a privilege often has the effect of increasing anxiety and exacerbating behavior problems.

DON’T tell children that if they don’t brush their teeth they will get a cavity and have to have a shot. First of all, it isn’t entirely true. Sometimes very small cavities can be filled with no anesthetic and some may not need to be filled at all. Secondly, this well intentioned statement prepares a child to expect the worst at every visit, and they arrive fearful and less cooperative.

Every child has a different level of tolerance; his emotional and physical maturity will help guide the first dental visit. Your child will be introduced to the dental chair and other equipment, and may learn how to brush his teeth properly if he is old enough. Parents should be assisting with homecare at least until around age ten – so this visit will be educational for everyone! A cleaning is usually planned for this appointment, but it may be a scaled-down version of an adult cleaning. Depending on your child’s needs, the hygienist may just clean with just a toothbrush. Fluoride may or may not be applied, and this will largely depend on whether the child can tolerate the flavor, not swallow it, and what other sources of fluoride (supplements, water etc.) he has access to.

The dentist may ask you questions about how you care for his teeth at home, and parents should come prepared to ask any questions they may have about their child’s oral health. Finally, the dentist will check for obvious cavities or other problems. There are no definitive rules on when to take the first x-rays of a child’s teeth. As long as there are no obvious areas of concern and his mouth is large enough to accommodate the film, then two bitewings are typically taken when the first permanent molar erupts at around age six.

We understand that every child is an individual with unique needs. Sometimes, especially if there are cavities that must be filled, the most important thing to accomplish at the First Dental Visit is simply to make the child feel comfortable enough to want to come back again. Let’s begin early and work together to ensure that your child has a lifetime of happy smiles and stress-free dental visits. What techniques have worked for you to ease your child through this experience?


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