Being scared of the dentist is a common part of childhood.

Children often don’t understand what’s going on or why they’re being subjected to all of these people in masks and whirring metal instruments. There are strange sights, sounds, smells, and bright lights, and you have to sit still while a stranger puts tools in your mouth.

This fear is completely understandable, but it’s important to calm it early in life. Children who are afraid of the dentist can grow into dental-phobic adults, 9-20% of whom may skip dental appointments due to anxiety.

If your child is already scared of the dentist or you want to make sure they never become afraid in the first place, keep reading to find out how to turn dental cleanings into a positive experience.

Don’t Wait Too Long for Their First Visit

The earlier you expose your child to dental cleanings, the less likely they are to be afraid of it. Dentists recommend that you take your child for their first appointment as soon as they get their first baby teeth. At the latest, take them before they reach their first birthday.

Once your child is old enough to develop a fear of certain locations, they’ll already be used to the dentist’s office, and might even look forward to playing with the toys in the waiting room or getting a sticker afterward. And, more importantly, visiting the dentist early on can help prevent toddler tooth decay.

Play Pretend

Children learn about the world around them through the power of play. As such, playtime is a great way to get over the fear of new experiences.

When you’re teaching your child to brush and floss their teeth, try turning it into a make-believe dental appointment. Pretend that you’re the dentist while brushing their teeth, and let them take a turn by caring for the “teeth” of their dolls and stuffed animals.

By associating oral hygiene with a fun learning activity, you can make a trip to the dentist something to be excited about instead of something to fear.

Use Positive Language

When your child inevitably asks questions about the dentist, make sure you use simple, positive language to answer them. Avoid warning them about things like pain and loud noises, as they might choose to fixate on those parts of the experience.

Instead, tell them about how the dentist will count their teeth and clean them so they can keep their smile healthy and strong. Save the technical language—like shots and cavities—for the dentist to explain. They likely have a tried and true method of telling kids what to expect.

Don’t Surprise Them

It’s a well-known fact that kids need routines to feel safe and secure. Childhood is filled with an onslaught of new and unexpected experiences, so having some things that they can expect to happen regularly helps restore a sense of order and calm.

To keep a dentist appointment from becoming a stressful event, treat it like you would any other routine activity. Let your child know ahead of time that they’ll be seeing the dentist, but also tell them what they’re doing before and after their appointment. Framing it as just one more part of a normal day can help abate some of their fear and uncertainty.

Use Positive Reinforcement Wisely

Giving your child something to look forward to after the dentist is a great way to decrease their anxiety, but be careful with how you make use of positive reinforcement.

Many parents will offer a reward by saying something like this: “If you do a good job at the dentist and don’t fuss or cry, we can go out for ice cream afterward!”

On the surface, that sounds like a motivating statement. Even so, there are two main problems with it.

The first is that by phrasing it as a reward for avoiding bad behavior, you’re suggesting that there may be a reason for the bad behavior in the first place. If your child hasn’t been to the dentist before, why would they expect to fuss or cry in the first place? Instead, frame the reward as the result of positive behavior, like being respectful.

Second, using sweets as a reward for dental can undermine the dentist’s message about avoiding sugar for oral health. While sugar in moderation is fine, it isn’t the best idea for your child to associate brushing their teeth with getting a sugary snack afterward. Instead, offer a reward like a sticker or a trip to the park.

Go to a Pediatric Dentistry Specialist

Adult dental offices can be intimidating places. Between the sterile white walls and large, strange equipment, they aren’t exactly a comforting place for children to be.

A pediatric dentistry office, however, is designed with children in mind. The equipment is smaller, the decor is fun and inviting, and the team understands how to keep children happy and calm.

What If They’re Still Inconsolable?

If your child screams and cries no matter what you do, it might make routine dental work impossible. On those rare occasions—or if they need a minor procedure done, like a filling—your dentist may be able to use a mild IV sedation to keep them calm. Talk to the dental team ahead of time to find out what their standard procedure is for overly-frightened children.

These Steps Can Help Your Child to Be Less Scared of the Dentist

Being a bit scared of the dentist is a fairly normal part of childhood. But if you approach it in the right way, your child will soon learn that getting your teeth cleaned is nothing to be nervous about. They might even start to look forward to their appointments!

If you’re looking for a pediatric dentist, check out Colleyville Children’s Dentistry. Our compassionate team works exclusively with children and knows how to make them feel safe and comfortable. Contact us today to get on the schedule and find out what to expect at your first visit.