Even for an adult, there’s a lot to be leery of at the dentist’s office. You think you’re doing an alright job brushing your teeth, but you never know what secrets are lurking back there in the crevices of your molars, do you? Stains form where you can’t see them. Holes mysteriously appear that need filling. I love how my teeth feel after a cleaning, but going in for one can be a fraught experience.
When I think back to seeing the dentist as a little kid, I recall Mr. Sucky, the clear plastic tube who syphoned the spit and kept me from drooling all over yourself, and the bubble gum flavored toothpaste that led me to associate sweetness with cleanliness. You know how the dentist aims that interrogator’s spotlight on your mouth? I used to stare up at it till I saw a big white spot in the center of my vision. I still do on some visits.
So I had no idea how best to prepare my son for his first trip to the dentist. I was worried, for sure. This is a little kid who doesn’t like staying in his seat till he’s done dinner, even during a delicious meal he enjoys like pizza or pasta. How would he be able to keep his mouth open for an uncomfortably long period of time? And I’ve already written about his dislike of following directions, especially when delivered by authority figures who are more interested in results than sweet talk. Our dentist is an amazingly thorough guy, but his chair-side manner is all business. “Open wider. Tilt to the left. Spit.” How would Felix respond to the sharp voice of dental authority?
Turned out he did just fine. Wonderful, even. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Felix!” the hygienists cooed on his way out of the door. The kid can be a real charmer. He met me in the waiting room, beaming with a mouthful of glistening white lil’ chompers, a crumpled “Number 1 Patient” sticker in one hand and a new toothbrush in the other.
It wasn’t magic, people. We’d been working with him for a while beforehand to prepare him for his visit. Click on to find out how!
What’s the secret to getting your kid to smile in the dentist’s chair? 1 of 7
Click on to find out!
Preview what’s going to happen. 2 of 7
The last time my wife and I went in for a cleaning, Felix came back for a look-see, popping his head in when I was laid back, mouth open, getting plaque scraped from my teeth. Since then, we've talked occasionally about how he's going to have his "big boy" visit to the dentist. The week or so before, we explained what he was going to have to do Head back! Mouth open! So as soon as he plopped on the chair he opened up and said, "Aaaahhh."
Play dentist with your child’s toys. 3 of 7
Take your child's favorite stuffed animals or dolls or, in our house, "guys" to the dentist for a cleaning. Don't make it scary! Pretend to clean the toys' teeth and make sure it all goes smoothly. This can be harder than it might seem. Felix makes catastrophes out of these games—"Jesse's eaten chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Her teeth are full of cavities!" I try to keep things less dire and more indicative of what he'll actually encounter on his visit.
Make clear the importance of seeing the dentist. 4 of 7
This one was easy for me. I'm hygienic obsessed, so Felix sees me brushing a couple times a day, and also knows about flossing and mouthwash. To further impart the importance of visiting the dentist, we made clear that this is something only big boys do! Could he handle it? Of course he could. Ever since he turned four he tells us he's "a big boy now!"
Accompany your child. 5 of 7
Don't let your kid go into the maw of the dentist office in the hands of a hygienist, no matter how sweet and charming he or she might be. Take your child back yourself, and sit next to her. Hold her hand. Say encouraging words. Even if you're not needed over the long haul — my wife, who accompanied Felix, ended up just sitting there for most of the cleaning— it helps for your kid to have a calm, supportive presence nearby.
Get your kid involved! 6 of 7
The dentist asked Felix to help him hold the Mr. Sucky tube (though he didn't call it Mr. Sucky, that's just what I call it). Felix was more than happy to help. In fact, when he told me about it his face brightened with pride.
Provide a reward for good behavior, both immediate and long term. 7 of 7
When he rejoined me in the waiting room, the first thing Felix said was, "I got to watch a movie!" The cartoon illustrated how to properly brush his teeth, and while this doesn't sound like the most exciting program in the world, Felix considered it a special treat, the result of a job well-done during the cleaning. He also got the aforementioned sticker and toothbrush, and lunch out at a restaurant, and a trip to a bookstore to spend a gift card my mom sent him in honor of his visit. All of these things provided concrete incentives, besides the satisfaction of being a big boy, which helped keep him on his best behavior.