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Dental anxiety and children: healthy mindset, healthy teeth

 

Dental phobia affects 1 in 7 Australian adults, causing anxiety about visiting the dentist and even avoidance altogether. Predictably, dental phobia is linked to poor dental health, as decay and other problems get out of hand with long absences between visits to the dentist.

When parents experience fear about visiting a dentist, they are likely to fear for their children also, leading some parents to put off routine check ups for months and, in more drastic cases, even years. Unfortunately, this can lead to unpleasant major dental work when the child finally does see a dentist, further reinforcing the dental phobia for both the parent and the child.

Dr Chai Lim encourages parents to address dental phobia early on by bringing children for their first visit after they have teethed (around 18-24 months is common for the first visit, although the ANZ Society of Paediatric Dentistry recommends as early as 12 months). Learning that visiting the dentist is safe and routine is key to children developing a healthy mindset and, later in life, maintaining healthy teeth.  

“Ideally, parents should treat a visit to the dentist as casually as going to the library or catching a bus, like a normal part of life.”

Often, a parent’s dental phobia can transfer onto their child without the parent realising it. Nervous parents may try to create excitement about upcoming check up, but this can backfire, creating anxiety. If you are anxious about your child’s visit to the dentist, Dr Lim suggests that it’s best to say nothing and let the dentist and hygienist do the talking.

“Innocent reassurances like, “it won’t hurt” or, “make sure you sit still” can signal to the child that perhaps this will hurt, and that wriggling is bad or wrong.”

Parents can rest assured that we are experienced in doing check ups on little ones, and we’ve had plenty of practice in navigating all the fears, questions and occasional toddler meltdowns that come with the territory!

Your child’s first visit is usually more about getting them acquainted with the process of visiting the dentist than performing any serious dental work. We never push a child to do anything they don’t want to do, and we encourage little ones to be curious and ask questions as they hop up into the chair and get accustomed to the room.

Most importantly, Dr Lim emphasises that parents who have avoided taking children to the dentist due to their own anxiety and fear should not feel ashamed or embarrassed. Dental phobia is a common experience that can be helped by creating a trust-based relationship with your dentist over the long term. If your child has not been visiting the dentist as regularly as they need, Dr Lim encourages taking action as early as possible so that any build up of decay and other potential problems can be addressed before developing into something more serious. As Dr Lim always says:

“We are here to help, not to judge.”

Additional resources for parents can be found on the ANZ Society of Paediatric Dentistry website.

 
rebekah barnett