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As we near the middle of National Children’s Dental Health Month, think back to your first dental appointment. Was it scary? Uncomfortable?

dentist and young patientThat’s the case for many children, but the dentist doesn’t have to become the Boogeyman.

Yes, there’s plenty in a dental office that can seem weird and scary to a child at first. There are strange tools and smells and sounds. There are unfamiliar people wearing gloves and masks, poking about in your mouth. Most frightening?:

The sight, sensation, and fear of pain from the needle and dental drill have been frequently shown to be the most fear-evoking stimuli for dentally anxious children. Whereas children sometimes present with fears of specific treatments, other children report a more general anxiety associated with the dental setting ⁄treatment.

Unfortunately, some kids fear the dentist because they experience dental pain before their first visit. ever visiting a dentist. According to a study published last year in Caries Research,

the lower the family income at birth and the higher the severity of dental caries, the higher the prevalence of dental fear. Children who never visited the dentist and those who frequently experienced dental pain were positively associated with higher dental fear prevalence.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that kids with dental anxiety were also found to visit the dentist less, setting up a vicious cycle. Untreated dental problems generally don’t get better on their own, only worse. Those who most need treatment go without – until it becomes an emergency situation.

There is evidence that parents who consistently fail to take their children to the dentist report that their children’s dental anxiety is one of the influencing factors for their avoidance behaviour. Interestingly, research has found that there may be long-term oral health implications resulting from children’s dental anxiety, as dentally anxious children are more likely to be symptomatic, rather than proactive, users of dental services in adulthood.

Starting visits early can stop this cycle. A child’s first visit should occur around age one or when their first tooth erupts. Some parents assume that there’s not much dental care that can be provided at such a young age, but early visits are a great benefit. For one, they can help familiarize the child with the dental office environment and how dental visits work: that they can be pleasant and not painful, nurturing and not scary. Early visits can help establish a pattern of regular dental care and a lifetime of healthy habits.

More, the dentist will be able to chart the child’s orofacial development and catch any emerging problems with alignment or function sooner rather than later – when they tend to be easier and less costly to fix.

Parents magazine offers an excellent set of tips for helping your child overcome fear of the dentist. Among the most important things you can do:

  • Set a good example by demonstrating good hygiene habits and going to the dentist routinely yourself.
  • Encourage your child to practice good hygiene habits. By the time your child is 2 or 3, they can learn how to brush their own teeth. Before then, use a small, soft-bristled brush to gently clean their teeth for them. Regularly floss their teeth, as well, until they are old enough to do so correctly on their own (by the age of 6).
  • Take your child to their first dental visit when they’re about a year old or their first tooth has erupted. After that, bring them in for regular exams and cleanings according to the schedule your dentist recommends.
  • Finally, find a dentist who enjoys working with children and will help your child feel comfortable. A plain, sterile office may be just fine for adults, but such a setting can make some children anxious. Think kid-friendly, and select a dental practice that offers a play area and has a very friendly, smiley staff.

Happy National Children’s Dental Health Month!

Image: Mikael Wiman

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