How to help toddlers cope with dental exams
I had just put down the baby for a nap when I checked my calendar. Oh, come on! I’m going to pretend this was my verbal response, a G-rated curse replacement my mom has used for years in front of kids. My daughter’s dental appointment was in 40 minutes. I always book dental appointments months in advance and this one snuck up this tired mom of two. At 2 ½ years old my daughter, as you might be familiar with, doesn’t exactly love to have Mickey suddenly turned off and rushed to get out the door. I thought okay, we’ll see how this goes! I woke up a confused sleepy baby and rushed the three of us out the door. Let’s do this.
This was my daughter’s 2nd visit to the dentist. Her first one at about 25 months was mostly an introductory experience to the environment. The dentist did a quick exam and demonstrated how to properly clean her teeth. It went better than I expected.
As a certified child life specialist, I was prepared for my sweet and sassy 2 ½ year old coming into this next appointment with advanced expressive language, physically stronger, and with a greater determination to do things independently. This age group arguably has the most going against them when facing unfamiliar (or familiar!) medical exams and treatment. If you really pause a moment to put yourself in a toddler's shoes, it’s understandable how frightening a dental visit could be at this age. Bright lights, white lab coats, masks covering faces, shiny tools attempting to enter their mouths while lying back, drilling noises, and multiple unfamiliar people if your dental office is as large as ours.
Even though it was a bit crazy rushing there, I felt confident in keeping the appointment because of the coping plan I had already set in motion.
Here are 11 tips to help prepare for and support a toddler’s visit to the dentist.
1. When scheduling your child’s first appointments, ask what will be done so you can accurately prepare her. If your child has any special needs, discuss partnering with them to make the experience go as best it can. Is there a private room? Or time/day of the week it is least busy? Is less staff involved better for your child? How do they support a child with special needs?
2. Schedule your own appointment as close as you can before her appointment and bring her to observe your cleaning, if possible. This way she can familiarize herself with the environment at greater ease knowing it is not her turn. Make this visit as positive as possible. Remember, kids are always listening and watching. I explained in simple language each step, whether she was peaking up from her precious extra screen time and looking at me or not.
3. Keep a positive attitude about the dentist. Trust me, I really dread going because I always get scolded for not flossing. But if you show distain, they will mimic you and won’t be able to trust the providers and cope effectively.
4. Model a coping strategy. Even if it’s just one or if this sounds silly to you. Try to remember that this experience is still very new to them. I told her I was holding something special and then we played our favorite imaginary game of catching butterflies.
5. The night before and day of, explain to her that it is her turn to go to the dentist for a mouth check up to keep it healthy. Then, help her create her coping plan (i.e. what she will hold, listen to, look at, etc).
6. Bring her favorite play or comfort items. You will want the toy items to be small enough to fit in her hand or snug next to her.
7. Some kids love the idea of wearing their sunglasses to block the bright lights. It's another simple, but effective option that gives young children a sense of control whether they use the suggestion or not.
8. Once there, advocate to have the hygienist demonstrate on you first or her stuffed animal.
9. Try out a comfort hold, with your child lying back on you in the chair. Some kids this young do great lying back on the chair independently. You know your child best.
10. Offer behavior-specific praise. “Great job sticking your tongue out!” “I can tell how hard you are trying to hold still.” And praise she can relate to: “Be brave like “X” (Moana, Anna, Doc McStuffins toy patients). Even if it doesn't go perfectly, try to pick out something positive she did or was trying to do.
11. Offering a choice of two items/options can give them a sense of control. Just avoid too many choice questions. It can be overwhelming for the child or it could give him power to stall or protest.
I’m happy to report that on a personal experience, my daughter did great, even with an unexpected long wait upon arrival. She was frightened by the mechanical toothbrush they showed her to help prepare her for the drill next visit, but to be expected. We already have one at home and I know it scares her. Stay tuned for activities to help with this!
The hygienist was so pleased with how well she cooperated and coped with our delayed appointment, the brush cleaning and doctor exam that she was rewarded with 3 stickers and a branded beach ball. She was stoked.
What other tips worked for your child? Please share!