Nine-year-old Maryann Morrison is a steely veteran when it comes to visiting the dentist.
She’s also a realist.
“It has to happen sometime so you can’t really stop it,” she said of her appointments at the University at Buffalo Dental clinic. “But you shouldn’t be afraid because they’re just trying to help your teeth. If you don’t go, your teeth are just going to hurt more.”
If only all children could be so adult about Going To The Doctor. But many are not.
Even with an early start, and a great doctor and plenty of reassurance – and maybe the occasional bribe – it can still be tough to make the little ones less anxious about the impending visit with that grown-up in the white coat who wants to poke, prod, scrape and inject them.
How do you do make it easier on all involved? By following the standard parenting axiom: Be a role model and set a good example.
“Parents need to remain calm even if they’re anxious. Children pick up on fear and anxiety,” said Dr. Matthew F. Bartels, a pediatrician with Lifetime Health Medical Group in Amherst and associate medical director at Univera Healthcare.
Parents should plan their child’s first visit to the dentist about six months after a child’s first tooth breaks through, said Meelin Dian Chin Kit-Wells, clinical assistant professor of pediatric and community dentistry at UB Dental School (her patients call her Dr. Dian).
The first visit to a pediatrician should start even earlier – before a child is born, Bartels advised.
Expectant parents can talk with friends who have children, ask their own doctors if they know of a good pediatrician or check websites including www.rateMDs.com, doctor.webmd.com and www.health.ny.gov/professionals/doctors/conduct.
Bartels said parents also should consider making an appointment to see some pediatricians, who will make time in their schedules – often free of charge – to meet with and give a firsthand sense of their bedside manner and office practices.
Children will have been to the pediatrician several times before they start figuring out where they’re headed. “By 15 to 18 months, they’ve kind of figured it out,” Bartels said.
Different children can behave differently on doctor or dental visits, but parents can ease the process of what Bartels calls “normal stranger anxiety” by being organized and prepared.
Most children won’t be keen on an office visit – particularly after their first experience – doctors say. Seasoned medical pros can weather the storm of tears and fears, but it’s a lot easier with parental support. It’s important for parents to be calm during the hard-to-watch parts, and be prepared to reassure the child.
“If a child cries, it’s OK, because then we can see their teeth better,” said a smiling Kelly Burch, a dental hygienist currently enrolled at UB Dental School.
Preparation starts at home and in the waiting room, where parents can tell children what to expect, that any hard part will be over quickly and – if parents are really prepared – that the parent and child can do something fun after the visit (see bribery, occasional). Parents also can help themselves down the line by the way they portray their doctor or dentist at home.
“Parents love for us to remind children, ‘No candy! No thumb sucking! No more bottle or pacifier!’ and that can make children less comfortable visiting the dentist,” Kit-Wells said. “It is especially difficult, when a lie is attached to it, such as ‘If you suck your thumb any more, the dentist will pull all your teeth out.’ ”
Bartels suggests parents look at time in waiting and exam rooms as good one-on-one time with their children, a chance for both to catch up on details of their busy lives, and for parents to underline the importance of good health habits.
Every child is different, but over time, “it does get better,” Bartels said of health care visits. By age 6 or 8, “the kids are going to be less anxious, less fearful.”
That’s true of even Maryann, who now needs braces – and a tooth pulled in the process.
“She obviously has some fear,” said her mother, Julie. “But she’s a brave little girl.”