You've made it through teething, the first toothbrush, and learning how to spit and rinse, and now it's finally time to schedule a visit to the dentist. Children are at risk for cavities even before all their primary teeth come in, so it's important to practice good dental hygiene as early as possible — even as early as their first birthday, according to pediatric dentists Carrie Tsai, DMD, MPH, and Deepesh Prajapati, MDS. Going to the dentist for the first time is a big milestone, but it doesn't have to be a stressful one, as long as you set expectations and never orchestrate a surprise visit. Not sure where to begin? Dr. Tsai and Dr. Prajapati shared with POPSUGAR all of their best tips for preparing a child for their first dentist appointment.
- Role play with a stuffed animal, then bring it to the appointment.
For children, much of the anxiety surrounding a visit to the dentist is due to not knowing exactly what to expect, so Dr. Tsai suggested role playing beforehand. "Let them use a toothbrush to clean the teeth of a teddy bear or a doll," she told POPSUGAR. "You can even count your child's teeth while holding up a mirror to show them how the dentist might look and check their teeth. When the day of the visit comes, make sure to bring along the stuffed animal that you role played with as a comforting reminder to your child."
- Schedule the appointment during the time of day your child is the least fussy.
"If your child is already scared, remember early morning appointments are best to have a smooth dental visit," Dr. Prajapati told POPSUGAR. This is a time when children won't be as hyper and the dentist's office isn't so busy and overwhelming. However, if your child remains upset during the visit and you can't find a way to calm them down, you may need to reschedule altogether, not only out of respect for the dentist's time but also because forcing them to stay will only discourage them from ever wanting to return.
- Read them a children's book about a friendly dentist.
To reinforce the idea that a visit to the dentist is a positive thing, it can be helpful to read books or watch YouTube videos, like Don't Be Afraid of the Dentist by Derrick McGhee or the Adventures in the Molar System series on Colgate's YouTube channel. "Use the story time to start a conversation about the importance of maintaining good oral hygiene," Dr. Tsai said. The dentist's office will likely have some children's books in the waiting room, but Dr. Tsai and Dr. Prajapati both recommended preparing ahead of the appointment so your child knows what to expect.
- Don't eat a heavy meal before the appointment.
"I always advise my patients to have an empty stomach two hours before the dental appointment," Dr. Prajapati told us. "It's usually a problem with small kids — that if they start crying, they often gag, and if they have a full stomach, they vomit. Some kids have really strong gag reflexes." It's therefore best to hold off on eating until after their appointment, as vomiting will only make their experience more stressful and uncomfortable. "Talk to your dentist beforehand about whether they want your child to have an empty stomach or not," Dr. Prajapati said.
- Use familiar, safe language when talking about the dentist.
No matter how stubborn your child is, bringing up the dangers of cavities and root canals to scare them into going to the dentist is just going to make them feel even more intimidated. "Avoid using off-putting words like needle and pain," Dr. Tsai said. "Instead, use positive phrases and explain that the dentist helps build healthy, strong teeth." She and Dr. Prajapati both agree that encouraging responsible dental habits and developing a healthy approach early on is more effective than resorting to scare tactics.
- Allow the dentist to communicate with your child directly.
It's tempting to do all the talking for your child, especially when you're at any kind of doctor's appointments, but if your child is 3 or older, Dr. Prajapati said it's more helpful to let them do all the interacting with the dentist on their own. "If you keep repeating what the dentist is asking the child to do, you're not allowing the dentist to build a rapport with the child. Yes, it might be slow to start with, but once that rapport is built, all the dental visits from then on will go smoothly," Dr. Prajapati said.
- Set a good example.
"Most fears about the dentist are passed down from parents to children," Dr. Tsai said. "Stay relaxed and calm about their visit, and hopefully they will, too." Make sure your child sees you brushing and taking care of your own teeth, and remind them that you visit the dentist just like they do. It all starts with your approach and the example you set. A little preparation can go a long way in making the first appointment and any future ones stress-free experiences.