Dental appointments can be nerve-wracking for any patient, but especially for children who have had only a few visits or are sitting in the chair for the first time. A positive experience at a dental appointment can set children on a course for oral hygiene success throughout their lives. Check out these strategies for communicating with pediatric patients not only during appointments, but before and afterwards, as well!
Parents sometimes project their dental fears onto their children, so it's important for dental staff to educate a parent or caregiver when they call to make their child's appointment. Advise parents to emphasize to their child that a dentist appointment is a fun visit that will help them stay healthy. They may even get to take home a new toothbrush in their favorite color!
Recommend that parents only discuss their positive dental experiences and do not plant any undue anxiety in their child's mind. If a pediatric patient comes to the dental office expecting a good experience, that is likely what they will get.
Finally, let a young patient's parent or guardian know that they should stay in the waiting room during their child's appointment and not join you in the operating area. Reassure the parent that you will get their consent prior to any treatment. Some parents will be apprehensive about being separated, but I find that children who enter the treatment room alone are more cooperative and better able to focus on the dental staff. If that is not the case, parents can be invited into the operatory at the start of, or during, their child's appointment.
Most children are uneasy about the unknown, so take care to explain to your patients what you will be doing during the appointment and show them the instruments and products you will be using. They may never have seen a curing light or scaler, so be patient if they have a slew of questions.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests taking a "tell-show-do" approach when treating young dental patients. By first telling a child about a procedure in an approachable way and then showing them what it will look or feel like, you can prepare them for what's coming and avoid hurting or startling them. For example, telling a child "I'm going to use this X-ray to take a picture of all of your teeth" and letting them feel the heavy apron may help them sit still during a full mouth radiograph.
Make sure you call patients by their name and get to know their interests and what they do for fun. Asking about school, friends, pets and activities lets them know they are important to you and builds rapport and trust.
At the end of the appointment, explain to your pediatric patients, and in the case of younger patients their parent/guardian, what oral hygiene home care instructions you would like them to follow to keep their teeth and gums healthy.
You can also recommend products that will make oral hygiene fun, like colorful toothbrushes and Colgate Kids Cavity Prevention toothpaste. (It has a fun bubble fruit flavor that kids will love.) Research fun games for a range of ages, and demonstrate them for your young patients. I also like to let the patient and parent know that it is OK for parents to help with oral hygiene care at home. Finally, thank your patients for visiting and let them know you look forward to seeing them at their next appointment.
As a dental professional you have an opportunity to make a lasting impression on a child's life. By creating a positive dental visit for a child you can set them up for lifelong whole mouth health!
Dr. Ryder Waldron is a practicing general dentist, co-host of the Dental Realist Podcast and co-author of the books So You Want To Be A Dentist? and So Now You're A Dentist? You can contact him on Twitter @ryderwaldrondds.