Children Need Not Fear the Dentist
It's been almost two years since I last attempted to take my son William to visit the dentist. Until then, I had no idea a kid could clench his jaws shut with such steely determination. On the second and last try, the dentist managed to count his teeth -- but she lost a pair of plastic sunglasses in the deal, and William left with teeth no cleaner than they'd been when we arrived.
William is 4 now, and what a difference a year or two can make! I knew we'd turned a corner when he let me brush his teeth with the Rota-dent®, which looks and sounds a bit like the polishing brush dentists use. In fact, about a month ago, he asked me to make an appointment for him to see the dentist! So of course I did.
Yesterday was the big day. William looked forward to it the way some kids look forward to going to the amusement park. In fact, he did get a ride -- up and down and upside-down (almost!) in the big dental exam chair! And this time, he didn't fight it -- he just relaxed and smiled and showed off those pearly white choppers! The hygienist counted his teeth (he has 20) and polished them with cherry-flavored paste until they gleamed. She also coated them in orange-flavored fluoride. William rinsed, spit and smiled some more.
Everything was going so well. The hygienist was amazed when William bit down on the X-ray film and sat still while she snapped the pictures. He thought it was really cool to see a picture of his teeth, and she showed him his six-year molars, still hiding down below the surface of his gums. She gave him a goodie bag full of coloring pages, a pencil, stickers, a puzzle sheet, a whale-shaped toothbrush and some Sparkle Fun Crest® toothpaste!
Then the dentist, Dr. Ellison, came into the room. Dr. Ellison is a soft-spoken, gentle woman who relates well to all her patients, from the very youngest to the oldest. At last, she'd been able to win my son over completely. Future visits would go smoothly now, for sure. But then she looked at the X-rays. I heard the word "cavity" and almost burst into tears. In fact, there were two cavities. If you've read my article, "Will You Donate Blood for Me?" then you know what a weenie I am when it comes to needles. Still, I'd rather have my own tender gums treated than subject my son to a moment's pain. I must be a terrible mother for my 4-year-old to have cavities! But he brushes regularly -- he loves brushing teeth! So what happened?
According to Dr. Ellison, William's baby molars have very little space in between. Without diligent flossing, brushing alone just won't cut it. The cavities were between the teeth, not on the outer surfaces. I felt a little better. But I knew I could've done a better job, too. Have you ever tried flossing a 4-year-old's teeth?
As fate would have it, Dr. Ellison had an opening at eight o'clock this morning. Why postpone the agony and stew about it for days? I booked the appointment and William and I went out to lunch. I broke the news to his daddy and his big sister, Katie, last night. We agreed to say as little as possible about cavities, drills, dental fillings and Novocain shots -- instead, I told William that the dentist had found a small hole in his tooth and would have to fix it before it got any bigger, because sometimes big holes hurt. That seemed to satisfy him. We all heaped lots of praise on him for how well he behaved during the exam and the teeth cleaning, and then we all shut up about it.
This morning before school, Katie challenged William to a video game then let him win so his day could start out on a positive note. She thought that up all on her own. She smiled at me like she was already feeling the sympathy pains. Actually, Katie is tougher than I am when it comes to cavities -- she hates shots, so she opts for the "no Novocain -- just drill 'em and fill 'em" approach. No nitrous oxide, either, whereas I shudder at the thought!
An Astronaut's Mask
William and I headed for the dentist's office. He went back and sat in the chair, just like he had done the day before. The dental assistant gave William a pair of sunglasses, and turned the high-powered work light on his face. I told William to imagine he was at the beach, soaking up the sun. "Don't forget the sunscreen!" I teased. Then Dr. Ellison let him put on the "astronaut's mask" with its low dose of nitrous oxide to help keep him calm. I told William to imagine that he was an airplane pilot flying over the beach, his plane trailing one of those long, colorful advertising banners, as I waved to him from my parasail high up in the sky. He smiled. On cue, he opened his mouth wide and the work began.
First, Dr. Ellison put sealants on eight of William's molars to help prevent future cavities. With his head practically resting in her lap, he relaxed completely. He held his mouth open, head tilted at just the right angles. He uncrossed his legs and unclenched his fists. Only his slightly fast breathing and ramrod-straight posture indicated any tension. Next, Dr. Ellison slipped the drill between his teeth and within seconds, she was done "fixing the hole." I don't think William was ever not alert, just calm. Finally, with a little oxygen and a lot of praise, he was out of the chair grinning like a fool! The whole visit took less than 30 minutes.
A "Date" at McDonald's
"You did better than your Mom does," Dr. Ellison told William.
I smiled ruefully at her. "Isn't that the truth?" I admitted. The dental assistant laughed. I've been known to suck down enough nitrous to make seasoned dental assistants woozy while monitoring me. William, on the other hand, didn't even need Novocain!
"I guess this means we have a date for McDonald's," I told him, breathing a sigh of relief. William clapped his hands and gave me a big hug. A Quarter Pounder never sounded so good.
Tips for Helping Your Child Deal With the Dentist
Kids are funny. What works for mine may not work at all for yours, but I think these tips are worth a try:
Before you take your child to the dentist, explain what a dentist is and what the dentist does. Try saying, "A dentist cleans teeth and fixes them if they're broken or have holes in them" to a very young child. And make sure you don't mention any personal dental phobias to your child!
Even if your child resists the dentist on the first, second and third visits, don't give up and don't wait almost two years to try again. Don't forget to floss your child's teeth!
When your child shows real interest in brushing his or her own teeth, it's probably a good time to visit the dentist. That's also a good time to talk about the dentist and what dentists do. Make sure you get in there and do the brushing for a very small child, even if they're in a serious "I can do it myself!" stage. Let them do it, then say, "Let me help -- I can reach those back teeth easier than you can. I'm really glad you like to brush your teeth!"
If your child hates tooth brushing, let him pick out a cute toothbrush and toothpaste. Brush your teeth at the same time, and make funny faces at yourself and your child in the bathroom mirror. Make it a fun part of the morning and bedtime rituals!
Reward your child. There's nothing wrong with a little bribery now and then, provided the circumstances merit it. Say, "It's really important that you do everything just the way the dentist tells you to, so she can do a good job and you can have clean, healthy teeth. If you help the dentist and do what she asks, we can go to McDonald's, see a movie together, play at the park, feed the ducks or whatever." Once I had to eat at McDonald's two days in a row, but we both had fun!
Let the dentist do his job. Don't over-prepare a small child for an unpleasant procedure. It may not turn out to be all that unpleasant after all. Just explain things in simple terms and be honest.
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