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Imaginative Children Do Better at the Dentist

Imagination can ease a child’s fear of the dentist.

Children who have active imaginations may be better equipped to handle stressful trips to their dentists, according to research conducted at Case Western University, Cleveland.

"Children who played creatively and expressed emotion -- for example, having two puppets fight and then make up -- exhibited fewer signs of stress after dental procedures than those who simply moved puppets around," says Sandra Russ, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Case Western. "It seems that by playing out problems, imaginative kids come up with creative ways to handle difficult situations."

Dentists, especially those who treat lots of kids, have long known that their little patients need something to distract them while they sit in the waiting room. One of the earliest examples, still found in many dental offices, is the aquarium. Today, many dental offices have special rooms just for kids to play before dental treatments or while waiting for a sibling or parent.

"You don't want a waiting room that is full of kids who are crying and screaming," says Marvin Berman, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist who practices on Chicago's Northwest Side. "If you can engage kids in activities before and after treatment, they will not be reluctant to visit the dentist the next time."

Dr. Berman's waiting room could be confused for a playroom at the local kindergarten. It is brightly painted and is loaded with creative furniture, toys, art materials, kids' books and even a piano. "There is something to engage every child," he says.

However, says Dr. Berman, it really should not be the job of the dentist to entertain children so they will not be afraid of dental treatment. Instead, it should be the role of the parent to create a positive image of the dentist.

"Granted, there will be a natural fear of the unknown on the part of the child and we can accept that," says Dr. Berman. "However, children learn fear of the dentist primarily from their parents and other older relatives. And in some cases, parents use a trip to the dentist as a way to threaten or punish a child, which is deplorable conduct on the part of a parent."

To ease fears on the part of a child, the Chicago Dental Society recommends that parents schedule a dental appointment before the child's first birthday. "Yes, that sounds early, but it's important," says Dr. Berman. "During this visit, the dentist instructs the parent on proper dental care, provides instruction to prevent early childhood caries, and checks to make sure the child's oral cavity is developing correctly."

Plus, he concludes, it's a good opportunity to establish a bond between the dentist and child, setting the groundwork for a lifetime of good oral health.

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