Children can have a range of reactions to a dentist, from fearful anxiety to curiosity. Preparing your child for that first dental visit can help cut down on the fear and anxiety, which will create a better experience for everyone involved.
Why Children Sometimes React Negatively to the First Dental Visit
If a child has never been to a dentist before, he or she has no experiences on which to build expectations. Everything is new to them. Even if they have been to a dentist before, a child might not transfer that experience to a new office or new dentist.
Now consider some of the things that a child might experience during that first visit:
- They might have to wait in a waiting room for some time before seeing a dentist or oral hygienist. Most kids don’t like to wait or sit still, so they will need something to occupy their attention.
- A dentist’s chair is surrounded by many tools. Most of these are complex tools that your kids will not have seen before. Your kids might be curious about them, but they could also be fearful of them.
- A dentist’s office will also have a lot of novel sounds: Machines that whir, buzz, and bubble; people answering the phone to set appointments; sounds of other people getting their teeth cleaned. If kids don’t recognize these sounds, they can be somewhat frightening.
- The dentist (and any oral hygienists you see) will all be adults that your child doesn’t know, and that he or she is meeting for the first time. Most children are (rightly!) nervous about strangers. They might act overly shy and reserved, or act out in an attempt to manage their fear.
With all of these experiences, it’s no wonder some children feel “out of sorts” when visiting a dentist for the first time!
And when a child is not comfortable with his or her environment, they can have a number of reactions. They might:
- Act shy and withdrawn.
- Get overly excited, running around and climbing on things.
- Say inappropriate things.
- Beg you to leave or do something else.
- Constantly demand your attention, or demand to be comforted.
It is important to remember that these reactions are completely normal and age appropriate. Your child is not trying to be difficult. They are simply trying to cope with their situation.
That said, many children have a positive experience during their first dental visit. Your son or daughter might simply be curious about the new sights and sounds around them. He or she might feel comfortable around your new dentist, especially if that dentist is experienced at interacting with kids. Don’t assume going in that your kid will react negatively—children will naturally pick up on your anxiety, which could inadvertently make the situation worse.
Preparing Your Child—and Yourself—for the Visit
The best way to ensure a calm and successful first dental visit is to take a little time to prepare your child and set expectations about what will happen.
- Start with a positive attitude yourself. Children are amazingly perceptive when it comes to the attitudes of others, and they will mirror your reactions to the situation. Take a moment to make sure you are calm, relaxed, and cheerful. Interact as politely as you can with the staff at the office. Try to project the attitude that a dentist’s visit is fun, and that the dentist is a friend who is there to help.
- Talk to your child, in an age-appropriate way, about the sequence of events during the visit. “First we’ll say hi to the receptionist, then there will be a little wait while they get ready, then we’ll go into a little room and you’ll sit in the big chair…” When kids know what to expect, they are much more able to deal with each event as it happens.
- Create a “ritual” surrounding the experience. Another way to help children process what is happening is to create little rituals around the visit. For example, maybe you bring some special books to read while in the waiting room. Or perhaps you can pick out a special “going to the dentist” outfit.
- Recruit older siblings to help. If your child has an older brother or sister who has been to the dentist (and has had mostly positive experiences), consider bringing the sibling along. Not only will this provide a distraction, but the older sibling can model the right kind of attitude and behavior for the office.
- Don’t forget to have them brush. The visit will go more smoothly if your child has already brushed their teeth before the visit. This makes it easier for the dental hygienist to examine your kid’s teeth, and to see how well he or she is brushing. So try to remember to have your child brush before going out the door!
Still Feeling Anxious about That First Dental Visit?
Parents, too, can be nervous about bringing their kids to the dentist for the first time. Reading, becoming informed, and knowing what to expect can help your anxiety, too.
If you have questions about the first visit, or about what to look for in a pediatric or family dentist, feel free to reach out to us. We’ll be happy to answer your questions!