February is National Children's Dental Health Month! When you think about it, teeth bring a lot of joy into our lives. They help us to enjoy delicious foods, to speak with friends, and to express our emotions when we smile and laugh. So taking good care of those teeth shouldn't be an anxiety-filled chore and, in fact, it doesn't have to be. Going to the dentist can be a positive experience that is fun and educational. Here are a few tips that will help your child say, “I love going to the dentist!” (and yes, it’s possible!).
1. Start young. Instilling the importance of good oral hygiene when your children are young will give them the tools to support lifelong oral health. When they are infants, use gauze to wipe plaque from their newly sprouting teeth. Once teeth are fully erupted, have them use a soft-bristled toothbrush with a “pea sized” dab of toothpaste. The toothbrush will not reach in between their teeth, so it’s important for children to floss from an early age (with help if necessary) to prevent cavities.
2. Meet the dentist. A child’s first visit to the dentist should be at age 1 or within 6 months after the first tooth erupts, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). This may sound very young, but it is the first step in building your child’s confidence in a new and potentially scary environment. Do not worry if your child is fussy at their first visit; strange instruments, loud noises, and new faces can upset even the most happy-go-lucky child. Let their first visit be a time when they learn about the “tooth counter” (the explorer), “Mr. Thirsty” (the suction), and “The Tickly Toothbrush” (the prophy cup). Not only does the dentist check your child’s teeth, they also give you information on eating healthy, establishing good dental routines, and breaking bad habits, like thumb sucking. Familiarizing kids with the dental setting at an early age will help set the stage for worry-free future visits.
3. Set a good example. When kids see you or their siblings brush and floss, they will be more motivated to follow along. When you go to your regular dental check-ups, speak positively about your experience. Many kids don't realize that their parents visit the dentist, too!
4. Help/monitor brushing and flossing. Kids may want to become independent right away, but they do not have the fine motor skills or sometimes even the patience to brush and floss all surfaces of their teeth until around 7 years of age. Even when they do have the skills, kids still might not always brush effectively, so keep monitoring and encouraging healthy brushing and flossing habits. Try "taking turns" sometimes to model proper technique.
5. Keep it simple and positive. Sometimes parents can unintentionally convey their dental fears to their children. That’s why it’s important to be light and positive when talking about the dentist. If your child needs a filling, just say, “The dentist is going to clean the sugar bugs off your teeth and make it strong and shiny.” Try not to use words that could alarm your child like “It won’t hurt,” and “You’ll be ok.” Some better words to use are “sleepy juice” (for anesthesia), “sugar bugs” (for cavity-causing bacteria), and “the tooth cleaner” (for the drill). If you are not sure what to say, just keep it simple and have the dentist explain it to your child.
6. Trust the dental team. In many offices, parents are welcome to accompany their child in the exam room. However, as a dentist, I often find that children do better when their parents stay in the waiting room. It is difficult for a child to focus and follow directions if there are several adults in the room giving directions at the same time. Find a dental office/team that you trust to give your child a comfortable and positive experience.
7. Have fun! Last but not least, make it fun! Pick out a fun two-minute song your child can rock out to while they brush. Let them pick out a pink, blue, superhero, princess, or musical toothbrush that excites them about brushing. There are also many different flavors of toothpaste, like strawberry and watermelon. Having your child choose these little details of their dental routine will give them a sense of ownership and motivate them to keep their teeth clean.
Dr. Jennifer Hwang is a family and cosmetic dentist at Newburyport Dental Associates in Massachusetts. She received her bachelors in science at Cornell University and her dental degree (DMD) at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.