Fear and dental visits seem to go hand-in-hand. If your toddler's first appointment is traumatic, future appointments may be just as awful, and you could risk creating a lifelong fear.
That's what happened when Jolene McCoy took her daughter Carly to a pediatric dentist for the first time when she was 2 years old, and even though she did everything right, the appointment went terribly.
"I can remember thinking to myself that my kid was 'that kid,'" Jolene says.
It never got better. Carly, now 13, still fears the dentist enough that Jolene doesn't tell her about upcoming appointments until the scheduled date.
"She still throws occasional tantrums," Jolene says. "My bottom line now is that she does not have to be friendly, but she also can't be rude or destructive."
While there's no way to be sure that kids will have fun in the dental chair, considering these few basic suggestions can go a long way toward a trauma-free first appointment and smoother future visits.
General Dentist vs. Pediatric Dentist
According to Gerald Wright and Ari Kupietzky, coauthors of Behavior Management in Children's Dentistry, parents should take their children to the dentist for the first time at age 1. Finding a dental home early in a child's life is not only important for pediatric dental development but also for familiarity and peace of mind for the child. The authors say it is much less likely that little ones will develop a real fear of the dentist at such a young age.
Wright and Kupietzky suggest finding a pediatric dentist because they are trained to work specifically with children and can make your toddler more comfortable.
"The issue is not one of special dental procedures, but rather one of dealing with children's behavior," Wright says.
That certainly was the case for Jessica Fox and her 2-year-old Maliyah. After two failed appointments at a general dentist, Jessica found a pediatric dentist, and they haven't had any problems since.
"The hygienist got to know Maliyah before she did anything. She let Maliyah play with all the tools before she used them," Jessica says. "They even had a special doll whose teeth she could brush."
During the Appointment
Just because you get your kiddo in the dental chair, doesn't mean your work is done. Let the dentist and hygienist take control, act natural and don't question the dental team's authority in front of your child. According to Wright and Kupietzky, if parents are nervous or unhappy, the toddler will pick up on it and the appointment can go south quickly.
Nicole Gish took her daughter Kaylee to the dentist at age 2, and they got through the appointment without a single temper tantrum. Nicole stayed with Kaylee throught the entire appointment, but she never felt the need to step in. She let the dentist run the show.
"The staff overall was just really child-friendly," she says. "They explained everything before they did it, and they showed her all of the tools beforehand."
If you think your toddler needs a little more preparation or tends to respond well to playful apps, check out the American Dental Association's Mouth Health Kids page. Your child can play games, print out activity sheets to color, watch videos of Sesame Street characters talking about oral health or follow Marty to his first dental visit.