Children should have their first dental appointment a few months after their first teeth come out. For most children this will be between 6 months and 1 years old. These very early dental appointments will usually just involve a quick check to make sure that the first teeth are coming through without problem, and will be more focussed on instructing parents on how to look after these early teeth.
The most important dental appointments for children occur at around the age of 3 or 4. This is for two reasons. Firstly, children at this age are starting to take responsibility for looking after their own teeth. Getting the right instruction and guidance from a dentist is vital at this point. Secondly, children can start to form meaningful associations, both positive and negative, with going to the dentist at this age.
Early negative experiences with the dentist can cause an avoidant pattern of behavior, as far as dental visits go. Avoiding the dentist in early adulthood is one of the biggest causes of serious dental problems down the line.
Therefore, in order to keep their teeth healthy throughout adulthood it’s absolutely vital that a child has positive early experiences with the dentist. Here are a few ways that you can make sure that this happens.
Make sure that your child knows what to expect at the dentist
The reason why a lot of people dislike going to the dentist is that it’s such an unusual experience. Laying on your back with your mouth open while someone touches your teeth is not something that happens in any other setting.
Your child is far more likely to have a positive experience at the dentist if they know what it will actually involve. It’s therefore important that you talk to them about what happens at a dental appointment, and why they do what they do. Have your child touch their own teeth to see what it feels like.
Getting used to the sensation of having their teeth felt will make the experience much less unpleasant when it actually comes to visiting the dentist.
Have your child practice having their mouth open
This may sound strange, but the experience of having your mouth open as wide as possible can be strange and unpleasant to a child. It can work muscles that are not used to being used, and can make the mouth feel dry and scratchy.
The best way to get accustomed to having your mouth open for several minutes is through practice. In the few days that lead up to the dental appointment, have your child keep their mouth open for a minute at a time.
This will both get your child used to the feeling of having their mouth open as wide as possible, but will also make the actual dental appointment run much quicker and smoother.
Plan out what questions you want to ask the dentist
Seeing the dentist is a great opportunity for a child to ask any questions about their mouth and teeth that may be worrying them. This could include questions about baby teeth becoming wobbly or any discomfort that they may be feeling when teeth come out.
In the vast majority of cases issues that your child may be worried about will be perfectly normal, and the dentist will be able to put their mind at ease. This reassurance can help build a positive relationship between the child and the dentist which will lead to a proactive approach to managing and preventing oral health problems as they get older
It’s also well worth thinking about what you want to ask the dentist about your child’s teeth before you go to an appointment.
How to handle suggestions for improvement from the dentist
Perhaps the largest reason why people don’t like going to the dentist is because they associate it with lectures about how they are not looking after their teeth properly. Such criticism can particularly affect a child, leading to feelings of shame around their teeth and promoting a pattern of behaviour where teeth are neglected because of this shame.
Of course, if a dentist is overly critical to a child and their parents, that is poor practice and you should seek out a different dentist.
However, if a dentist sees problems with a child’s teeth, it is their responsibility to suggest ways that these problems can be fixed. Usually these problems will boil down to a “brushing blindspot” namely a part of the mouth (usually at the back) which is being missed during brushing.
You should reassure your child that brushing is a skill that takes practice, and that they should not feel down if their teeth are not perfect. Work with your child to implement any advice from a dentist. When improvement is reported during your child’s next dental visit, praise and reward them for their hard work.
Treat your child after a dental visit
Going to see the dentist is a very healthy and responsible thing to do. It should be rewarded as such. Make sure that you do something fun with your child immediately after the dental appointment.
The more your child associates dental appointment with pleasant experiences (even if they only occur soon after the appointment), the more likely they are to be proactive about seeing the dentist in the future.
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