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5 Things to do If Your Child is Afraid of the Dentist

Girl using her hand to shield her mouth from her dentist

Kids can be scared of new or unfamiliar things: the dark, thunderstorms, or that monster under the bed. And if you're a parent, then you likely know that your child can be just as scared when going to the dentist.

In fact, researchers have found that 20% of school-age children have a serious fear of the dentist, which can come from a number of environmental or emotional causes. And it can be nerve-wracking for you as a parent.

What's causing your child's fear of the dentist?

Kids can be afraid of the dentist for any number of reasons. Some children pick up on a family member's fear, while others might hear stories about painful visits to the dentist.

Common causes for dental fear in children include:

  • Fear of medical professionals
  • Fear of medical instruments or doctors’ offices
  • Avoidance of stressful situations
  • Emotional sensitivity or hyperactivity
  • Painful history of dental visits

The good news is: There are ways to make trips to the dentist easy on your little one (and you). So here are five simple tips and tricks to help your kids overcome their fear of the dentist.

1. Inform and communicate

Believe it or not, helping your child to get over his or her fear of the dentist starts with you. Start by talking to your child about why it's important to have healthy teeth and gums, and how the dentist plays an important role in oral health. Then you can work his or her upcoming dentist appointment into the conversation. It's key not to spring the appointment on your child: That can only worsen his or her anxiety.

Try to explain to your child what he or she can expect at the appointment and answer any questions along the way. Just be sure to limit the amount of details you give about the dentist: Stick to short, simple answers while avoiding words like "pain" or "hurt." Another good technique is to bring your child to watch one of your dentist appointments. If you smile and remain calm before and during your appointment, you'll show your child that the dentist isn't a scary person.

But if you’re the type that gets nervous before a dentist appointment, try to control your anxiety around your children. Kids are intuitive - they can easily pick up on your nerves, and it might negatively affect their perception of the dentist.

2. Role play

When in doubt, act it out: Setting up a pretend dentist office and role playing with your kids is one way to help them understand what to expect at the dentist. You can pretend to be the dentist while checking their teeth and talking about healthy teeth and gums.

You can even explain how certain tools work. For example, you can talk about how the tooth polisher keeps teeth nice and clean. Again, just be sure to limit any potentially "scary" details or noises when playing dentist.

You can also watch YouTube videos about the dentist with your child. Seeing his or her favorite Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger characters taking a trip to the dentist might further calm any qualms your child is having.

3. Use relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are a great way to help your child settle down before a dentist appointment. Try doing deep breathing exercises together. Or, have your child play with a calming toy like a bubble wand, which encourages him or her to breathe deeply.

4. Distract them with toys or games

Like a bubble wand, small entertaining toys can serve as beneficial distractions before (or sometimes during) your child's dentist appointment. Just be sure to ask the dentist for permission for your child to bring a toy or game to the dentist chair. Some dentists will allow it, while others may not.

A skilled pediatric dentist may also be able to distract your child with fun conversation that will keep his or her mind off of what's happening in the chair.

But if these options don’t work, you can come up with a game to keep their attention: Ask them to count the tiles on the ceiling or play a game of "I spy."

5. Use positive reinforcement

Kids benefit greatly from positive reinforcement for good behavior.

Applaud your child for his or her good behavior and bravery during the appointment. Then, you can reward your child with things like small stickers, toys or good behavior tokens.

But a word of caution: Don't promise any rewards or treats to your child before appointment. This type of bribery can increase your child's fear. Keep the rewards a surprise.

Other alternatives

If your child is still fearful of the dentist after you've tried these tips, talk to your child's dentist about alternative options. A dentist might be able to safely sedate your child via nitrous oxide or laughing gas to ease anxiety and pain caused by dental procedures.

You can also explore therapy for your child. There are plenty of skilled pediatric therapists who can help your child manage his or her fears of situations like visiting the dentist.

Start dental care early

Good oral habits and regular visits to the dentist are key to your child's overall health. It's recommended to get your children into the dentist by age 1 or when their first tooth appears.

Your child's dentist might even teach you a thing or two about dental health tips for your child. For example, some parents don't realize that children can get cavities in their baby teeth from certain feeding methods, or that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease for children in the United States, even though it's highly preventable.

Avoid "scary" dental costs by shopping for dental insurance

Like dental insurance plans for adults, children can get dental insurance coverage to help curb any "scary" dental costs to you. Children’s teeth grow quickly, so it may be wise to invest in a dental care insurance plan now before bigger dental problems arise.

Most dental insurance policies will offer coverage for three different categories of oral health:

  • Preventive dental care includes diagnostic and preventive services like regular oral exams, teeth cleaning, and x-rays. It may also include fluoride treatments and sealants (plastic tooth covering to prevent decay). In many cases, dental plans include 100% of the cost of preventive care.
  • Basic dental care includes office visits, extractions, fillings, periodontal treatment (gum disease), and root canals.
  • Major dental care covers crowns, bridges, dentures, and inlays.

(Note: Some dental insurance plans include root canals under "major" dental care, while others categorize them as "basic.")

In general: Know that not all dental insurance plans are the same. Some insurance companies have smaller discounts on dental services, while others cover the full cost of preventive visits and higher percentages of the cost for other care.

It's always best to be a smart consumer and shop around and compare dental insurance plans that best fit you and your family. Make sure you're getting the best care at the best price possible before you schedule your next dentist appointment for your child.

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