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Taking the Stress Out of Dentistry for Kids

Taking the Stress Out of Dentistry for Kids

“Look Mom, no cavities!” used to be what we all wanted to hear (and say). But really, oral health means much more than just the absence of tooth decay. What better gift can we give our kids than a lifetime of healthy smiles? To do that, we need to help them become accustomed to — and even enjoy — going to the dentist regularly. Studies have shown that good oral health may improve your child’s school performance and psychosocial development. Nowadays, all parents and child caregivers should be saying that their little ones enjoy dental visits and even look forward to them. If this isn’t the case in your family, please read on!

Before The First Birthday

Ideally, a child’s first dental visit should take place in the first year of life. While there might be only a few baby teeth visible, there’s a lot that can be accomplished and importantly, it gets children used to being at the dentist’s office. A recent evidence-based study proved that starting dental visits prior to age one reduces oral health costs (everyone wants to do that) and children have more pleasant future dental experiences.

A patient-centered and child-friendly approach involves a little fact-gathering and pointing out a risky activity or two (like drinking juice between meals or in a bottle at night) and putting our heads together to come up with a realistic and specific risk-targeted plan to develop healthy habits. We call it anticipatory guidance — learning about future oral health needs. The first visit includes an examination to make sure there are no signs of early dental disease and an instructional demonstration of the best ways to clean your child’s teeth and gums. We also discuss the benefits of fluoride, how much to use and the ideal times to apply it. Please don’t forget that toothpaste is not tummy-paste and should not be swallowed.

Home Sweet Home

Finding a dental practice should be like finding your child a cuddly warm blanket — a comfortable and secure environment in which real communication can occur. We refer to this nowadays as a “dental home.”

Preparing children prior to their first appointment minimizes fear of the unknown and those awkward first impressions. Not too much information though! A little pre-first-dental-visit talk can go a long way. Commonly, pediatric dentists and general dentists trained in child behavior will spend the beginning minutes just chatting and playfully telling and showing a child what’s going to happen prior to doing anything. This allays jitters and builds trust and rapport. Gone are the days when dentists lectured kids and their parents — guilt trips are not productive. Real communication means listening as well as talking, and solving problems together.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Parents and caregivers set the tone for our kids, both at home as well as in the dental office. First, we should strive to take good care of our own teeth before attempting to show our kids how to. Curbing our own unhealthy habits like frequently eating sugary and starchy snacks between meals can influence our children’s dietary intake for the rest of their lives. Ideally, we’d give up non-nutritious drinks and snacks altogether. Sodas, even diet varieties, and sports and energy drinks can be extremely damaging to teeth, as well as to general health.

True, sometimes we all find dental visits stressful, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Stress at the dental office depends on a lot of things and can be decreased in children by what psychologists call “shaping and conditioning” behavior. Pediatric dentistry encourages use of these techniques. Getting young people on the right track early makes it more likely they will have positive emotional experiences which pave the way for lifetime dental health-maintenance routines.

When taking the first exciting trip to the dental office with our children, we need to remember to stay calm. When we feel nervous, our children pick up on it; even non-verbal body language conveys nervous tension. Be positive and smile! Pretend you’re going to a favorite place. You or an older sibling can even hop into the dental chair first and model how fun and comfortable it is. As children grow and mature, they can assume more and more responsibility for their own health, but this can always be bolstered by our positive attitudes, examples and encouragement.

What You Don’t Know May Hurt You

Many people don’t know dental disease (tooth decay) can begin as early as two months of age. If people understood more about early oral health prevention, maybe tooth decay would not remain the most common chronic disease of childhood throughout the world. And what really hurts is that it’s essentially preventable. Ouch!

Almost one out of four babies gets infected with their parent/caregiver’s acid-producing oral bacteria. For thousands of years these tooth-decay-causing culprits have been passed from generation to generation. They survive and thrive in saliva, adhering to teeth and turning the sugars we eat into tooth-destroying acid. They need simple carbohydrates to survive and in our sugar-loving society, these germs can really go to town. Most people aren’t born with soft teeth. The bacterial acid dissolves the enamel crystals of the teeth until holes (cavities) result.

Preventing transmission of these bacteria to your baby is easier than you may think. Don’t put utensils or pacifiers into your baby’s mouth that you’ve licked or used and don’t share toothbrushes. Remember, too, if your teeth and gums are healthy you most likely won’t transmit unhealthy bacteria to your children. If you have dental disease and untreated tooth decay, don’t kiss your baby on the lips.

Before Tooth Decay Occurs

If the goal is setting our children up for low-stress dental visits, then we need to identify babies at high risk before tooth destruction occurs. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) defines any tiny little white spot on a tooth or other early signs of decay in a child under three, as evidence of the beginning of severe dental disease.

By identifying these high-risk children early, it’s not only possible to prevent the process from starting, but also to reverse the early stages of tooth decay — without drilling — by using a medical approach to dental disease. By evaluating your child’s diet, oral hygiene habits, teeth, and fluoride exposure, along with the family’s history of dental disease, your child’s risk for tooth decay can be determined in minutes. Based on this risk assessment, recommendations can be made for healthy oral and dietary habits and other preventive measures, and a healthy oral environment can be established — preventing and even reversing early tooth decay.

Keeping Out of the Cavity Zone

Depending on the age of your child and how many teeth have already erupted, fluoride varnish may be advised. A tiny amount is painted on the teeth in a thin layer. This releases fluoride, which strengthens and protects the enamel. A landmark evidence-based study established that fluoride varnish application for young children along with oral health education cuts the chance of getting cavities in half. The medical community has started to get onboard and some pediatricians have joined dentists in providing this early preventive service for infants and toddlers.

But, Once In The Cavity Zone…

If your child already has a cavity or two, these need to be treated promptly. This usually involves removing the decay and replacing the damaged tooth structure with a filling material. Sometimes temporary fillings can be placed to buy some time until a young patient is able to be fully cooperative. Dentists have many tricks up our sleeves to make things go smoothly — the most common being distraction techniques that help children imagine happy things in their active minds. Don’t be surprised to find your dentist singing to relax your children to keep them happy! Describing dental instruments euphemistically, in easily understood child-friendly language, also decreases fears of the unknown. For example, the “tooth tickler” is an instrument for exploring decay in teeth; “Mr. Thirsty” suctions away saliva; and “sleepy juice” is for anesthetizing teeth, putting them to sleep for just a little while. Nitrous oxide (so-called laughing gas) used properly can be wonderful in soothing nerve-racking thoughts.

Giving Stress the Boot

The goal of making dentistry stress-free for kids is highly commendable. Today dentistry emphasizes a team effort — child, parent/caregiver and dental health professionals — working together to make oral health not only readily achievable, but also fun and stress-free. When you take your child to their new dental home, make sure to ask any questions you might have; modern pediatric dentistry welcomes and encourages the exchange of ideas.

It’s also important to begin the interaction early so every facet of your child’s oral health and dental development can be monitored and timely advice given. Ultimately, preventive dentistry and healthy oral and dietary habits will get your child as close to stress-free dentistry as possible.