They scream. They whine. They throw tantrums. It's no wonder many parents become so frustrated with their children's anxiety that they consider not taking them to a pediatric dentist at all. It's stressful, but perfectly normal.
Children experience dental anxiety just as adults do, and this fear is intensified by a sense of the unknown. They just don't know what to expect, and that's scary. You want to do what you can to put their minds at ease, but don't really know where to start. To really address these concerns, it's important to understand where dental anxiety originates in children. There are essentially two types of dental fear: objective and subjective.
Objective fear is created when a child goes to the family dentist and has a negative experience, such as feeling pain or not understanding precisely what's happening. The only way to overcome objective fear is to return to the dentist and replace these negative experiences with positive ones. Over time, a child should become more comfortable, their anxiety dissipating. Subjective fear, on the other hand, does not spring from actual experiences at all. It may be implanted by images of terrifying dentists on television, by playground horror stories or by sensing mom's anxiety before her own dental appointment.
Education is a parent's best defense against subjective fear. To relieve a child's pre-dentist anxiety, discuss the appointment in positive terms. For instance, explain that the pediatric dentist is a friend who will count, clean and examine his or her teeth using neat tools. Let children know that despite playground rumors, a dental exam is painless. There are a number of children's books that can help, but try to avoid those that discuss advanced procedures like fillings and extractions. Stick to the basics, and your family dentist will go from there. If you struggle with dental anxiety yourself, try not to let it show, or leave these lessons to somebody else. Children are very perceptive.
Next, consider taking your child to a pediatric dentist. Pediatric dentists are specially trained in dealing with child dental fears. They use techniques such as modeling (demonstrating procedures on fake jaws or stuffed animals) to alleviate anxiety, and explain everything in simple, fun terms that a child can understand. Beyond that, however, pediatric dentists understand child dental health needs, such as identifying problems related to thumb-sucking or baby bottle tooth decay. The experience could be just as educational for the parent as it is for the child.
Finally, for the sake of both your children's teeth and emotional well-being, it's best to bring them to the family dentist before their first birthdays. Establishing positive experiences from such a young age will squelch both objective and subjective fears before they even materialize. It will also ensure that the dentist can identify and treat child dental care problems and help to establish a proper dental regimen right from the start!