Toddler at dentist doseofplayOur daughter’s first visit to the dentist was just after she turned two years old, per recommendation from her pediatric dentist. As a child life specialist, I’m familiar with how beneficial a positive medical experience can set children up to cope positively with future medical experiences and, adversely, how a negative one can make subsequent medical encounters more challenging.

During her first visit, the dentist did a quick checkup that consisted of quickly looking at and touching her teeth, tongue, and throat. He finished the exam by reviewing how to properly clean her teeth. It went better than I expected.

 Heading into my toddler’s next visit to the dentist, I was prepared for my sweet and sassy 2 ½ year old who now showed advanced expressive language, was physically stronger, and had a much greater determination to do things independently. This age group has arguably the most going against them when facing unfamiliar (or familiar!) medical exams and treatment. If you really pause for a moment to put yourself in a toddler's shoes, it’s understandable how frightening a dental visit could be at this age. Bright lights, white lab coats, masks covering faces, shiny tools attempting to enter their mouths while lying back, drilling noises, and multiple unfamiliar people if your dental office is as large as ours--these are all things that are anxiety-provoking!

Even though it was a bit crazy rushing there, I felt confident in keeping the appointment because of the coping plan I had already set in motion.

Here are 11 tips to help prepare for and support a toddler’s visit to the dentist.

  1. When scheduling your child’s first appointments, ask what will be done so you can accurately prepare her. If your child has any special needs, discuss partnering with them to make the experience go as best it can. Is there a private room? Or time/day of the week it is least busy? Is less staff involved better for your child? How do they support a child with special needs?
  2. Schedule your own appointment as close as you can before her appointment and bring her to observe your cleaning, if possible. This way she can familiarize herself with the environment at greater ease knowing it is not her turn. Make this visit as positive as possible. Remember, kids are always listening and watching. I explained each step in simple language, whether she was peeking up from her precious extra screen time and looking at me or not.
  3. Keep a positive attitude about the dentist. Trust me, I really dread going because I always get scolded for not flossing. But if you show disdain, kids will mimic you and won’t be able to trust the providers and cope effectively.
  4. Model a coping strategy. Even if it’s just one or if this sounds silly to you. Try to remember that this experience is still very new to a small child. I told her I was holding something special and then we played our favorite imaginary game of catching butterflies.
  5. The night before and day of, explain to her that it is her turn to go to the dentist for a mouth check up to keep it healthy. Then, help her create her coping plan (i.e. what she will hold, listen to, look at, etc).
  6. Bring her favorite play or comfort items. You will want the toy items to be small enough to fit in her hand or snug next to her.
  7. Some kids love the idea of wearing their sunglasses to block the bright lights. It's another simple, but effective, option that gives young children a sense of control whether they use the suggestion or not.
  8. Once there, advocate to have the hygienist demonstrate on you or her stuffed animal first.
  9. Try using a comfort hold, with your child lying back on you in the chair. Some kids this young do great lying back on the chair independently. You know your child best.
  10. Offer behavior-specific praise. “Great job sticking your tongue out!” “I can tell how hard you are trying to hold still.” And praise she can relate to: “Be brave like “X” (Moana, Anna, Doc McStuffins toy patients). Even if it doesn't go perfectly, try to pick out something positive she did or was trying to do.
  11.  Offering a choice of two items/options can give kids a sense of control. Just avoid asking too many choice questions. It can be overwhelming for the child--or it could give him power to stall or protest.

I’m happy to report that on a personal experience, my daughter did great, even with an unexpected long wait upon arrival. She was frightened by the mechanical toothbrush they showed her to help prepare her for the drill next visit, but that’s to be expected. We already have a mechanical toothbrush at home and I knew it scares her. Following the appointment, we continue to make teeth brushing fun and always encourage medical dental play prior to and following each dental visit.

What other tips worked for your child? Please share!

Dawn Klausmeier is a mom of three under 5 years old, a Certified Child Life Specialist and creator of Dawn is passionate about empowering children and families to cope the best they can when facing medical experiences.