Scared of the Den­tist? How to help your child over­come fear and get good care


Most things kids fear, like mon­sters un­der the bed or creepy clowns, don’t di­rectly af­fect their health. But be­ing scared of the den­tist is dif­fer­ent, es­pe­cially if your child is too afraid to co­op­er­ate or if you put off ap­point­ments. It helps if a child starts den­tist vis­its young—even as a baby!—but if that win­dow is shut, use these strate­gies to make sure your kid gets proper care.

1 Play den­tist at home

A re­cent study in the Jour­nal of Den­tal Anes­the­sia and Pain Medicine con­firmed the power of play­time: In it, the den­tist ex­plained the cav­i­ty­fill­ing pro­ce­dure to all kids in child­friendly lan­guage. Some kids got to play a smart­phone den­tist game, some got to touch toy den­tal in­stru­ments, and oth­ers played with the in­stru­ments and a Play-Doh Doc­tor Drill ‘N Fill set. In the play groups, 85% ex­hib­ited pos­i­tive be­hav­ior, such as laugh­ter and en­joy­ment, com­pared with 55% of the other kids. “Play­ing is a fun way to work on a child’s fear of the un­known, which is likely the big­gest rea­son kids are anx­ious about the den­tist in the first place,” says Eric K. Wood, D.D.S., lead pe­di­atric den­tist for Bright Now Den­tal in Cleve­land and Can­ton, OH.

2 Watch your words

Avoid say­ing “hurt,” “pain,” or “afraid” when talk­ing about the den­tist. “Even if you’re say­ing some­thing like ‘It won’t hurt,’ it plants the idea that it could hurt,” says Kevin Donly, D.D.S., M.S., pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atric Den­tistry. In­stead, use pos­i­tive or neu­tral words like “clean” and “healthy.” Still, it’s cru­cial for you and the den­tist to be hon­est and not spring any sur­prises. “A good den­tist should al­ways tell and show your child ev­ery­thing that he or she is go­ing to do be­fore do­ing it,” says Donly.

3 Ask for dimmer lights

Darken­ing the room, play­ing sooth­ing mu­sic, and drap­ing pa­tients with a weighted wrap re­duced anx­i­ety, sen­sory dis­com­fort, and pain per­cep­tion in both typ­i­cally de­vel­op­ing kids and those with autism spec­trum dis­or­der, re­searchers from the Her­man Ostrow School of Den­tistry of USC in Los An­ge­les found. See if your child’s den­tist is will­ing to give those a try.

4 Call be­fore you ar­rive

Prior to driv­ing to the den­tist, find out if the of­fice is on sched­ule. When kids are made to wait (and wait and wait) be­fore their ap­point­ments, fear and anx­i­ety brew. In fact, pro­longed wait times can build on a child’s ex­ist­ing den­tal wor­ries, trig­ger­ing an “un­bear­able level” of fear, notes a study in the Jour­nal of Med­i­cal In­ter­net Re­search.

5 Con­sider se­da­tion

If you’re at the point where your child’s fear of the den­tist is too much, it’s OK to try se­da­tion. “We’re re­ally aim­ing for no-tear den­tistry, and for some kids, se­da­tion can be an in­te­gral part of that,” says Wood. Op­tions in­clude nitrous ox­ide (laugh­ing gas), mild oral se­da­tion, and gen­eral anes­the­sia. Dis­cuss them with your child’s den­tist if other strate­gies fail.

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