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Healthy habits: How to prepare your kids for a stress-free dentist visit

A positive first dental visit can help your kids overcome or avoid fear of the dentist later on. Here are some tips for preparing you and your child.

When it comes to dental care, it’s never too early to start building healthy habits – and the earlier you can get your kids comfortable with the dentist, the better.

Making sure a child’s first dental visit takes place in their early years can help prevent unnecessary stress – and costs – in the future, advises HCF Dental Centre Network Clinical Manager Gabriel Hajjar.

“We recommend bringing children into the dentist from around 12 months of age or when their first baby tooth appears, whichever comes first. At this first dental visit, important topics can be discussed with parents like dietary advice, thumb sucking, brushing tips and what to expect as baby teeth continue to arrive.”

Building a relationship with your child’s dentist at an early age also helps them become more comfortable in this environment and creates a trusting relationship with their dentist.

Why is it so important for kids to go to the dentist?

You may be asking yourself why young kids should see the dentist when their baby teeth are going to fall out anyway. But Gabriel says it’s just as important to look after baby teeth as it is adult teeth.

As well as building a positive relationship between your kids and their dentist, it can also help you cut down on stress. The dentist can help empower you to look after your kids’ teeth – like showing you how to brush them properly or help you figure out what toothpaste to use.

Starting them young could also save on costly treatments down the line. “For kids under the age of 5, we screen for early decay or bottle decay. The earlier we catch that the better,” Gabriel says.

As many as 3 in 10 Australians avoid or delay going to the dentist because of the cost, and 1 in 4 children aged 5-10 have untreated decay in their baby teeth.

“If there are any issues, the earlier they’re picked up and a plan put in place, the better the financial and treatment outcomes,” Gabriel explains.

With the right health cover, dental care, treatment and maintenance should be affordable for the whole family. HCF’s Dental Centres give members better access to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare, with many treatments for kids involving no out-of-pocket costs.

And it’s no problem if members don’t live near a dental centre. Our No-Gap network of over 10,000 dentists across Australia provides 100% back on your annual check-up*.

Why is my child afraid of the dentist?

If your child has never visited a dental surgery and is already scared, have a think about where this fear might’ve come from. Children model behaviours they see around them. Perhaps if you, your partner or a sibling has talked about a painful experience at the dentist, your kid may have picked up on that.

“I’ve seen first-hand that for many children the fear and anxiety has already set in before they’ve even stepped foot into the dental centre,” says Jasmina Garibovic, an HCF dental hygienist.

Keeping conversations about the dentist positive and balanced can take away negative expectations, so your child can go into the experience feeling happy – or at least neutral – and gives them permission to make up their own mind about the situation.

“Keep language age-appropriate and light-hearted,” says Gabriel. “It’s also important for parents not to talk about things like needles. If a child ever needs a treatment, careful explanation in language they understand is important to build trust.”

How to explain to a child why it’s important to visit a dentist

Using analogies your kids can relate to can help them understand why going to the dentist is so important.

For example, you could explain that, just as we take our cars to the mechanic to make sure it works well, we also have to take our teeth to the dentist. This way the dentist can make sure our teeth are healthy and fix any problems early on.

“It’s also important to get the ‘prevention’ message out there,” says Gabriel. He says that, as well as dental visits, explaining to your child that doing things like regularly brushing and flossing (once their teeth are touching) can help them understand how they can be part of taking care of their own dental health.

Before your child’s first dental visit

While our dental staff are committed to making you and your child feel calm and comfortable every visit, there are things you can do to help prepare your kids for the dentist ahead of time.

If your dentist allows, take your child along with you when you have a check-up. This is an example of modelling positive behaviour and lets your child see that you’re at ease in the dentist’s chair.

Taking your kid to the dentist with you also gives them the opportunity to become familiar with the environment, so when the time comes for their first appointment, they’ll know what the centre looks like and who the dentist is.

Introducing your child to the dentist

Some children may feel anxious or vulnerable on their first visit to the dentist simply because it’s something new and unknown. Gabriel says most dentists are well aware of the fears and anxieties children can have about appointment, and will do everything they can to help them feel comfortable.

“There are so many things dentists can do to help your child see it as a fun experience,” he says. “I won’t have any sharp or scary-looking instruments laid out, and will let children hold the mouth mirror and other equipment, so they can see there’s nothing to be scared of.

“I sometimes even get Mum or Dad to sit in the chair first and have the child lay back on their chest for their appointment.”

Here are some other ways you can help your kid overcome dental anxiety:

Buddy up. Let your child choose a special toy to take along with them. Being able to hold on to something familiar can help keep your child calm. “I recently bought a sensory popper toy for particularly nervous children. It gives them a task to focus on and parents have told me how much their kids have enjoyed it,” says Jasmina.

Talk it out. Encourage your kid to ask the dentist questions, like “How many teeth do I have?” or “What kinds of food and drink are good for my teeth?”. This will give them a sense that they aren’t simply a passive observer, but an active participant.

Choose the right dentist. Make sure you choose a dentist with a “bedside” manner that will help your child stay relaxed and happy.

Plan ahead. If your child has already told you they’re nervous or you suspect they may feel scared when they arrive, call ahead and let the dentist know that your child might be anxious. Most dentists will appreciate the heads-up and will prepare for their visit.

No one knows your child better than you, so anything you can think of to put them at ease will not only make it a more pleasant experience for the dentist, you and, of course, your child, but will also set you up for more successful visits – and healthy dental habits – in the future.

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published January 2022

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