by Denise Morrison Yearian
Jane and Drew Tamassia love going to the dentist. Perhaps words like “tickle toothbrush” and “sugar bug remover” make these preschoolers giggle. Maybe it’s the Disney decorations that draw them in.
“I think they like going because I started them early and chose someone who knows how to work with children,” says Suzanne Tamassia, whose own childhood dental fears drove her to find a dentist who works with specifically with children.
Getting children in at an early age to see the dentist is key. “Our recommendation falls in line with the national recommendation made by the American Dental Association,” says Dr. Angelica Rohner of Angelica Rohner Pediatric Dentistry. “We recommend that children have their first visit by at least the age of 1, a visit that is as much for the parent as the child. We discuss everything from good brushing routines to daily diet and how to handle tooth trauma.”
Dr. Michael Anglin, a pediatric dentist, agrees. “There are so many things that can affect speech and chewing that we look for as well,” he adds. “Plus, starting the routine early always helps.”
Dr. Sory "Chuck" Shannon, D.M.D., says that age one is best for that first visit, as well. "We see a large number of children with bottle decay. We stress the cleaning of mouth with the parents."
Dentists recommend parents ask close friends and family members for recommendations on the best dentist for their child, and they welcome parents to make an appointment before treatment to meet the dentist and staff. Children should see the dentist at least every six months, so being comfortable with the choice is important.
Pediatric dentists often offer a more “fun” environment than a general or family dentist’s office, even though many general dentists are great with children. That’s why it’s key to ask those you trust and get good recommendations. “Pediatric dentistry is a specialty of dentistry that focuses on the oral health and unique needs of infants, children and young adults,” says Dr. Stephanie Steinmetz, pediatric dentist with Dr. Stephanie Steinmetz Pediatric Dentistry and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “After completing four years of dental school, a pediatric dentist has an additional two to three years of formal specialty training.”
Even before that first appointment, there are things parents can do to prepare their child for their visit. “I advise parents to avoid four-letter words like “hurt,” “shot,” “pull” or “pain,” says Dr. Andrew Richardson of Cahaba Heights Pediatric Dentistry. “The best thing is to encourage them about how easy the visit will be and how great they will do. We have great ways of talking kids through procedures at our office without having to go into details that can make them worry.”
Dr. Clark Thomas of Pediatric and Adolescent Dentistry urges parents not to talk about or convey their own fears and experiences with dentists. “Try and use positive words and phrases like counting your teeth and brushing your teeth,” he adds. “Try and read encouraging books about going to the dentist; make sure the books are updated, as some of the old ones can be a bit too much. Also, there are some great dental apps to get kids involved.”
Most dentists also encourage parents to come into the exam room with their child, which can create a more relaxed atmosphere. “We want parents to trust us and be able to see everything that goes on during a procedure,” says Dr. Lauten Johnson of Pediatric and Adolescent Dentistry.
Most first visits do not involve any discomfort, but dentists say children should feel free to ask their dentist about it,” Rohner says. “Your pediatric dentist and hygienists are trained to answer this question honestly but age-appropriately,” she adds. “Kids are often anxious about new experiences and we are able to break the visit down into small parts and explain to our patients every step of the way.”
Even if it’s a routine visit, crying can set in, especially in very young children. Dentists expect this, but also recommend parents make appointments when the child will be most active and alert, not during what would be a normal naptime. “When the child is active and alert, they can interact more with their caregiver,” Anglin says. “Even if they are a busy body, we can use that energy to get them more involved in the appointment.”
"Children and adults have different views of pain," Shannon adds. "We just explain to a child that they will feel different."
Richardson adds that mornings seem to be a good time for young children to come in, “before they wear themselves out having fun and are closing in on naptime.”
Parents should encourage good dental care of brushing and flossing early to make it a habit, but to keep in mind young children should receive plenty of guidance. “Many kids cannot effectively brush their teeth until age 8,” says Johnson. “Be engaged with your child, and remember a healthy diet aids in the prevention of cavities.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren. Associate Editor Lori Chandler Pruitt contributed to this story with local comments.
Resources to Prepare Children for their Visit with the Dentist
Barney Goes to the Dentist by Linda Cress Dowdy; Publishing Lyrick
The Berenstein Bears Visit the Dentist by Stan & Jan Berenstein; Random House
Brush Your Teeth Please Pop-Up by Leslie McGuire; Reader’s Digest
Curious George Goes to the Dentist Margaret Rey; Houghton Mifflin
Doctor DeSoto by William Steig; Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Going to the Dentist by Fred Rogers; Putnam
Have You Ever Seen a Moose Brushing His Teeth? by Jamie McClaine; Partners Publishing Group
How Many Teeth? (Let’s Read-and-Find Out Science 1) By Paul Showers; HarperCollins Publishing
Just Going to the Dentist by Mercer Mayer; Golden Books
Show Me Your Smile!: A Visit to the Dentist (Dora the Explorer) by Christine Ricci; Simon Spotlight/Nick Jr.
“Smile” Says the Crocodile by Jane Belk Moncure; Child’s World
The Tooth Book (Bright & Early Board Books ™) by Dr. Seuss; Random House
A Trip to the Dentist Can Be Lots of Fun! (Videorecording) by Robert Wortzel and Rob Garner; Night Media Group, Inc.
A Trip to the Dentist Through Pinatta’s View (Videorecording); Boggle-Goggle Enterprises
What to Expect When You Go to the Dentist (What to Expect Kids) by Heidi Murkoff; HarperFestival