I took my son to the dentist for the first time when he was three years old. He was so enthralled by the toys and games in the waiting room, I don’t think he really understood where he was. It was hard to pull him away to go in for his appointment, but once in the chair, he sat incredibly still as the dentist looked in his mouth, counted his teeth out loud, made some jokes and sent him back out to play.
Phew, I thought. A stellar first visit. Until the dentist held me back and told me my son had seven cavities. He recommended general surgery. What? I was overwhelmed and terrified. I thought three was the right age to bring him in, and I was doing everything right to protect his little pearly whites.
But according to the Canadian Dental Association, children should see a dentist shortly after their first teeth erupt (check with your dentist about his or her preference). This visit is more for the parents, to help them understand exactly what they can do to prevent cavities and to help get them started on proper oral care.
Read more: What you need to know about cavities>
What should you expect? “It’s really just intended to put the child at ease, introduce him or her to the world of dentistry, and make sure they don’t need any emergency attention, which is rare,” says Vancouver orthodontist Sam Daher.
A typical first session will include a quick look in the child’s mouth with a hand-held mirror and counting their teeth out loud. “You just want to get them comfortable with the dentist, and you, as a parent, want to be comfortable as well – with the dentist, the office and the environment,” he says.
Here are a few ways to prepare kids ahead of time to make the experience as positive as possible:
Choose the right dentist
Ask friends for recommendations or research kid-friendly dentists in your community. Ask to meet ahead of time, and make sure they have strategies to make kids comfortable and that they care about making the experience enjoyable. Vancouver mother of four Cathie Guppy decided to take her girls to her own dentist instead of someone who catered to children. She’d been going to the same dentist for 20 years, and her girls had been there with her many times, so she knew they’d al- ready feel comfortable. “It helps that he has a gift basket for kids, so on the way out they pick up a toy,” she says. “It’s a great incentive.”
Talk to your kids
Get some books about visiting the dentist and use storytime to kick-start a conversation. Some favourites are Doctor DeSoto by William Steig and Just Going to the Dentist by Mercer Mayer. A fun way to get kids comfortable is to play “dentist,” using props like tooth- brushes, flashlights and cups for rinsing, and invite all their stuffed animals for a checkup, where your child can practise being the patient, the dentist and the parent.
Read more: Dealing with dentist phobia>
Be a good role model
Make sure the kids see you brushing and flossing as a natural part of the daily routine. And if you’ve got a bit of dentist phobia, try your best to shield the kids from it: According to a recent study, most fear of the dentist is passed down from parents to children. Guppy says she brought her girls to the dentist and had them sit on her lap while she was getting treatment. “When they saw that I wasn’t afraid, they weren’t either,” she says.
New technology is making dental visits easier. There’s some groundbreaking stuff out there – like a scanning wand that takes digital impressions, replacing the goopy stuff dentists sometimes use to take an impression of your child’s teeth, which can cause gagging and fear. Find out if your dentist uses it or any other new laser techniques.
A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “The first dental visit.”