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Pediatric Dentist Visit Disasters

Apr01

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Hi Amy,

I thought that nail clipping was the most dreadful task I had to deal with as a parent, but now that I’ve taken my 3 year old to the dentist, I realize how very, very wrong I was.

I took my 3.3 year old daughter last weekend and, after 2 weeks of prepping, and reminding, and unbridled enthusiasm on her part, when we got there she totally shut down. She loves to brush her teeth and has been pretty great at other doctor’s offices. I found a pediatric dentist other parents recommended, so I figured that she’d have a decent bedside manner, but she, and her assistant, got right into my daughter’s face and just kept asking her questions (e.g., do you want this toothbrush or this one? do you want these sunglasses or these ones? can I count your teeth? can you count your teeth? do you want to brush your teeth for me? do you want to brush the bear’s teeth?) and I think it really overwhelmed my daughter.

She didn’t open her mouth once. There was no teeth counting. It was pretty awful. I got into the chair and had my teeth counted. I brushed the bear’s teeth. I finally told the dentist we’d ignore my daughter for a bit so she could warm up, and we had a 10 minute conversation. In that time, my daughter came over and got onto my lap, but then the questions immediately resumed and my daughter started squirming. I got impatient and started tough love/bribing (“I am going to get a treat because I cooperated, but if you don’t cooperate you won’t get a treat and won’t that be sad,” etc). When I caught myself trying to pin her arms down so the dentist could try to pry her mouth open I realized things were going very badly and we needed to just leave. I gave her one more chance to cooperate, got nothing, and out we went (I took my prize for cooperation, because consequences!). I think I’ve really screwed this up and I am worried I fostered a lifelong fear of the dentist. Plus, I still don’t know if her teeth are healthy, so we have to go back.

Advice? Should her father take her back to the same dentist in a month? Should we find a new dentist and go in 6 months? My husband wants to bring her along to one of our dental appointments, which I think is a terrible idea. But I have no idea what to do.

Thank you!

Oh, I have been there. HAVE I EVER BEEN THERE.

Here’s the thing about preschoolers (and toddlers, and school-age children, and probably some teens and adults as well), every visit to the dentist is different. You just never, ever know. I’ve had some TERRIBLE visits, almost exactly as you described (sans the in-your-face technician and dentist, so more on that in a bit). I’ve indeed had to hold a child on my lap tightly, my legs wrapped around theirs, while they refused to cooperate in the slightest and the dentist basically forced their mouth open for a cursory, half-assed cleaning.

In fact, our appointment seven months ago with Ezra went down pretty much exactly like that. Even though he’d been FINE at this same dentist six months before. It. Was. A. Nightmare.

(And for some reason our pediatric dentist’s office is a fan of joint appointments for siblings, so I also had Noah running around with HIS anxiety amped up to 11. And then the dentist was all, “Noah needs X-rays today too.” AND THEN I RAN AWAY AND LEFT THEM THERE FOREVER, THE END.)

I took Ezra (solo, no more joint appointments EVER) back for a cleaning this month. There were no words for how much I was dreading that appointment. I was in such deep denial that it was even happening that I did NONE of the pre-visit prep and endless pep talks we’ve done in the past. I basically woke him up, put him in the car and told him we were going to the dentist. I asked him if he would be brave and let them brush and count his teeth so he could get a prize and he said yes. I secretly called him a liar in my head.

And then: He did fine. He did amazing. There was absolutely no trace of the horror and thrashing and the forcible tooth-counting that had gone down before. He was apprehensive at times but unfailingly cooperative. He sat still for X-rays and was delighted out of his mind with the box of 5-cent prizes. He now says he loves the dentist and is promising Noah (who goes back [SOLO] [ALSO WITH HIS FATHER] this week) that going to the dentist doesn’t hurt and isn’t scary. I think it might have helped that his last doctor’s appointment involved some shots, so as soon as he was assured that the dentist doesn’t give shots, he relaxed considerably.

We’ve had similar ebb-and-flow with Noah as well — one nightmare visit followed by one easy one, and then back again. I will say that all of the worst dentist visits we’ve had were in the three-to-four-year-old range, even if we’d started regular visits earlier than that.

So back to you, and your experience: What you saw was probably pretty normal for her age, and no, you didn’t just instill a lifelong phobia of the dentist. In six months she’ll probably have forgotten about it completely. In fact, you’re probably a nicer mom than me for even agreeing to leave — we might not always have gotten the BEST cleanings during our “bad” appointments, but dagnabbit child, we drove here and I’m paying for this visit so you are getting SOMETHING done, hold still.

Going back in a month would be more challenging, since she won’t have the six-month buffer to forget about the whole thing and maybe mature a bit more. But three years and nine months would admittedly be a bit on the old side to have never had even a cursory check-up. (I am obligated to point out that the official recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry is that children begin lap exams by their first birthday at the latest, and get their first “full” cleaning between two and three, depending on the dentist and your child’s [HAHAHAHAAAA] cooperation level.)

It’s your call, but if you DO go back to the same dentist, request that they ease into things a bit (okay, a LOT) more. Arrive to your appointment early and remind them that this is do-over and they might want to try a different approach this time. I definitely don’t like the sound of the in-your-face first appointment and you’d think a highly-recommended pediatric dentist would know better than to tag-team a first-time patient with a million questions. Going to a new dentist might help because of the change of scenery…but possibly only at first, once she realizes it’s still the same basic place trying to do the same basic thing. Maybe an office that advertises an expertise with special needs children (like ours) would be more calm and patient around typical children than the office you went to. Maybe ask those other parents that recommended that dentist if they have a favorite hygienist as well. Maybe make her father take her next time, just to see. YOUJUSTNEVERKNOW.

(I agree with you that having her accompany you to a grown-up visit might be more trouble than it’s worth. Will she really sit there and pay attention? What if there’s like, SURPRISE CAVITY or SURPRISE EMERGENCY ROOT CANAL? What if there are no good prizes? My dentist sucks at fun and prizes.)

Some kids like all those initial questions because it gives them a sense of control, but some kids (especially younger ones) can get overwhelmed by them. It can help if a parent just answers for them so the “pressure” is off and the weird strangers stop asking them things that they don’t really understand or care about. (At Ezra’s last visit, they asked about toothpaste and flouride flavors twice before I answered for him, once I saw that a reply wasn’t forthcoming and he was starting to clam up and get shy about it.) If your daughter seems interested in something — ANYTHING — in the room, go with that instead of constantly trying to get her to go along with a “script” about “LOOK AT MR. THIRSTY. LOOK AT MR. BEAR.” If she’s staring at a fish tank or TV or whatever, talk about that and give the dentist the signal to just get in there and DO something. If she needs to sit on your lap and be held tightly, it’s not the end of the world and doesn’t mean she’ll need that for all dental visits until the end of time. Tell her you’ll give her big hugs in the chair and keep talking to her about other things. Remember that sometimes the things that we HAVE to do for our children’s health and benefit (shots, medicine, saying no to candy or toys, etc.) will make them temporarily sad, afraid or angry. Remember that children are pretty darn resilient, though.

I think the most important thing for your daughter is to just get through a visit, even if it’s not a great visit. First, because she obviously needs to get an examination done at this point, but also so she can leave feeling like there was some small success — a cool prize and lots of praise from you, etc. I’m sure that while she felt like she “won” last time when you bailed, she also sensed that the grown-ups weren’t happy and Mommy was stressed out and feeling that wonderful blend of embarrassment/guilt/anger that we mothers all know so well.

I also wonder if we all sometimes over-prep our kids for stuff like the dentist. It definitely can help to read a book or social story, or let a child touch your own electric toothbrush, but two weeks of prepping and reminding and YAY THIS IS GONNA BE AWESOME might have upped the ante a little too far for her. Maybe she shut down once she realized that the dentist like, wasn’t a real-life Dora cartoon and was actually kind of scary to her. Because let’s be honest: A lot of people hate going to the dentist for a lot reasons. It’s not ever “fun” when I go and yet I’ve totally downplayed the less-than-enjoyable parts of the dentist for my kids ahead of time and paid for it. I will never forget one cleaning where Noah finally submitted to the tooth-polishing thing that I had repeatedly told him would just “tickle” his teeth. He pushed it away, sat straight up in the chair and looked me right in the eye: THAT. DOESN’T. TICKLE. MOM. WHY DID YOU SAY THAT IT WOULD?

(j’accuse!)

If you do want to try some additional prep, however, we’ve been really into old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood around here lately. At first my older two were like, this is so boring, when do things start exploding, but wouldn’t you know it, the topics he covers STICK with them in a really comforting, down-to-earth way. They bring up the things he says later in perfect context, every time. There’s an episode where Mister Rogers goes to the dentist for a checkup and it’s really pretty great. You can stream the whole episode for free if you have Amazon Prime (or buy it for $1.99 if you don’t).

In the meantime, while you wait for the next appointment, wherever and whenever you decide to do it, don’t ask constant questions or remind her of “last time.” A three year old can’t articulate exactly what scared her or WHY she wouldn’t open her mouth, so don’t ask or pressure her to help you figure out how to make it “different” this time. It might not be any different. It might completely suck and you might have to hold her again. You might have to bribe. You might feel like coming home and immediately cracking open a bottle of wine. (Note: ACCEPTABLE.)

But it might be completely different the NEXT time. And the time after that. Fingers crossed, along with the rest of us who have check-ups and cleanings on the horizon. You just. Never. Ever. Know.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “Pediatric Dentist Visit Disasters”

  1. Brigid Keely Apr 01 at 3:29 pm Reply Reply

    What a great question, and what a great response! I had really traumatic dental experiences as a kid (my first dental visit, at age five, included the dentist physically threatening me) and have been super nervous about taking my kid to the dentist. We picked a pediatric dentist basically at random (they are walkable distance and take our insurance) and really lucked out. It was the most pleasant dental visit ever and the staff was really laid back. We happened to get a good match but I’ve been nervous about the next visit and this helps ease my mind quite a bit.

  2. elw Apr 01 at 3:42 pm Reply Reply

    Different dentist different dentist different dentist!  We had a horrible visit with our three year old at a (highly recommended) pediatric dentist that both he and I HATED but have since found a great one, who calmly, gently, explains everything, doesn’t get in his fact, is all over awesome.  Ask around again, pick someone at random, whatever.  That dentist may be fine but not for your kid.  Doesn’t hurt to try somewhere else.

  3. Carrie Apr 01 at 4:01 pm Reply Reply

    That’s why I will never go back to a ped dentist. Our experience was way too overwhelming. We have a fantastic family dentist who is great with kids. He suggested we bring our son in with me for an appointment and it worked great. Of course this is 100% dependent on the dentist.

  4. AJU5's Mom Apr 01 at 4:08 pm Reply Reply

    My son is just over 3, and hasn’t had his teeth cleaned yet. He has gone to the dentist since just before 1. His first two visits went great, and the last 3 have been a little bit of a nightmare in terms of his behavior. BUT! Luckily the pediatric dentist we use doesn’t really push I make sure he gets his teeth counted, etc, but the cleaning isn’t a huge deal to us. His sister started going just before 3yo, and has been great every time. The x-rays haven’t been always successful, but they have always just said “let’s try and see” with them. The youngest will go for the first time at about 21mo. I am interested to see how they all do since it will be a joint appointment for all three…

  5. Holly Apr 01 at 4:48 pm Reply Reply

    My 2.5 year old went with me to my family dentist (who I have seen since I was 4….), and she was hesitant of him – probably because he’s 6’3. She didn’t want to open her mouth or anything, but just hid with my mom in the waiting room. The dentist didn’t push at all though. When he saw she was hesitant, he backed WAY off. Once the tech (young female) started to clean my teeth, my daughter was game to come back and sit in my lap and watch. She even let the tech spray water in her mouth a few times.

    We go again in 2 weeks for my 6mo cleaning, and we’ll try the same drill again. Hopefully this time she’ll at least let the dentist count teeth.

    Since he’s my family dentist, he’s not even billing for her as a patient yet because he’s cool I guess. And they have a treasure box that she got to choose a toy from last time even though nothing happened, just to keep things positive. She can still find that matchbox car if you ask which one was from the dentist :)

  6. MR Apr 01 at 4:57 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, wow. *I* would be overwhelmed if I had people in my face asking a ton of questions like that! I wouldn’t go back to that dentist. Find another one (either ped or adult) and interview them first. Explain that you tried this and it was overwhelming and you are looking for a more calm and matter of fact environment. One that will give her lots of praise for a job well done, but that doesn’t expect too much in terms of answering things.
    I didn’t take my dd until she was 3.5 because my dentist fully admitted the first visit at two was just to ride in the chair and get comfortable with the environment, and I didn’t want to waste the money. Then our second dd was born when my first was 3, and newborn plus newborn’s health issues made me totally forget about the dentist. By the time we took her in, we had been reading the Dora goes to the dentist book (http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0689871694) for a long time. It does a great job of explaining everything that will happen. And my dentist and his staff were calm and didn’t ask her any questions, just cheerfully told her what she needed to do. She was a little nervous, but even ended up letting them put sealants on. I think it really helped that it was a regular dentist. My dd seems so overwhelmed when I take her to traditional kids places. (Ugh, the biggest waste of money was the kids hair salon – she screamed the whole time!) But, she does fine with adult places who are calm and patient with children. I sometimes think those kid places do all the decor and entertainment crap because it hides the fact that they don’t KNOW kids and how to interact with them. Treat them with dignity and respect and PATIENCE, and it goes a long way.
    Anyway, all this is a long way of saying you didn’t doom your kid to hate all dentist. Just maybe THAT dentist, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. :)

  7. Cheryl S. Apr 01 at 5:16 pm Reply Reply

    I’m going to go with DIFFERENT DENTIST. And wait at least 3 months. If you felt like they were all up in her face and it was uncomfortable, try someone else. We went to one pediatric dentist for her first 2 visits. I didn’t like the practice. We changed and found wonderful dentist that Jess just loves. Second, wait a few months so she can forget a bit. And I agree with Amy. Don’t do the prep. It ramps things up. Just, “Hey, we’re going to the dentist today” Like it’s no big deal. Good Luck!

  8. Alissa Apr 01 at 5:37 pm Reply Reply

    My 4 yr old goes to my family dentist with me.  He’s awesome, has his own kids, is great with them.  There’s no pressure there.  So far the most he’s done is had his teeth counted, and had them brushed with a toothbrush by the hygentist.  He sits and plays with his IPad while I get my teeth cleaned, and then he has his turn.  He’s not covered by my insurance at that dentist, but I have loved the experience with him so much that it’s just not worth it for me to switch to find someone who will cover him.  So – a ped dentist isn’t the only option.  Just find someone patient and quiet and kind.  Good luck!

  9. Jeannie Apr 01 at 7:19 pm Reply Reply

    Our pediatric dentist is pretty awesome — he doesn’t pressure the kids much, but one thing he does insist on is that kids older than 3 go in without their parents. I didn’t like it at first, but he said that in his experience, bringing parents in made the kids feel like there was something to fear, that there was something they needed to be protected from. And so far, for my oldest, that worked super well. I may rue these words in a month when my youngest (3) will go back!

    And keep in mind — three was, to myexperience, THE most trying age. It may well go better next time.

    But I also second — if the dentist isn’t working for you, try another one. 

  10. Eliza Apr 02 at 1:25 am Reply Reply

    My pediatric dentist had the same approach as Jeannie’s — at three he came out, talked about what a big girl she was and how she was ready to sit in the chair, and when she was clinging to me (she hates anything to do with doctors), he asked me to leave and cleaned her teeth with his assistant.  I heard her complaining from the waiting room, but she apparently opened her mouth and cooperated pretty well (and told me “open wide, please” for the next three weeks).

    Now if only her four-year-old doctor’s appointment had gone that well…

  11. Reagan Apr 02 at 3:48 am Reply Reply

    Oh my, yes.  We are going through this with my 4yo too.  Our last visit the dentist  got a quick look…upside down and backwards. This time we are going solo. No expectations.

    But if I was uncomfortable with my dentist’s approach, I would find another. You know what works for your child.

    Thanks for the Mr. Rogers recommendation.  Will try that before next weeks appointment. Does Mr. Rogers get a haircut, too? Cause we need some serious help in that department as well.

  12. Nancy Apr 02 at 10:05 am Reply Reply

    I would try a different pediatric dentist. And I would explain what happened at the previous appointment so that they knew this was a second try.

    And to echo what Jeanine’s dentist said: don’t go in with your daughter. Yes, it stinks, and yes WHAT IF SHE NEEDS YOU? YOUR BABY! Well, he’s a probably a pediatric dentist because he likes kids. And he probably has a bazillion tricks up his sleeve on how to get them to cooperate. Find someone you can trust who can get the job done.

    I know it stinks to let them go in on their own. But it has been my experience that it works a lot better.

  13. Janet Dubac Apr 02 at 10:09 am Reply Reply

    Visiting the dentist is one of my greatest fears when I was very young. I don’t know why but the thought of it before was just excruciating. I can hear the drills, I can feel my tooth being “pulled’ away from me, and the worst of it is that I can imagine how painful it feels like. The most effective way for me was when my mom promises to buy ice cream after the visit. That worked for me.

  14. Angel Apr 02 at 10:46 am Reply Reply

    My son has been going to the dentist since about 2 weeks before his 3rd birthday. He is seeing the same one that I do. for his first appointment it was more of a watch while I had my teeth cleaned. Then he sat in the chair and they put some sunglasses on him to count his teeth and also showed/helped him brush his teeth. I’ve never been one to go for the ped Dr. I’ve had this dentist since I was around 15 years old. I asked him what the youngest age he took for kids and what he suggested they are for first time cleanings. My son’s first appointment wasn’t charged to my insurance. He’s been going every six months since. He’ll be on visit number 4 in a couple of weeks. For his 2nd and 3rd visit they did a full check and cleaning on his teeth.
    I agree with the fact that the kid places are almost to distracting to kids b/c they seem to be bright and have way to many things for kids to look at and do while they wait for their turn. Our dentist has a small TV in each exam room that they’ll change to a kid friendly show so the kids watch it while they are getting cleaned.

  15. Ann Apr 02 at 12:56 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter completely lost her mind at the dentist when she went the first time at 3.5 – the pediatric dentist was great, really, and we did the full cleaning despite her screaming while I held her against me.  We prepped for it but she just couldn’t deal once we got there.  When we took her back 6 months later, after some discussion about what behavior was expected from her, she still lost of her mind and acted like a tiny lunatic, but it was sliiightly better than the first time.  We’re headed back in June, when she’ll be 4.5, and I’m hopeful that it will just keep getting better as she gets used to it.  Her sister, at age 2, didn’t make a peep and was totally fine with the dentist.  Different kids, different reactions, no matter what prep I did or didn’t do before the appointments.

    For what it’s worth, our ped dentist told us that no one screams their heads off at the dentist by age 12, so I only have 7 years to go!  :)

  16. Kim Apr 02 at 1:22 pm Reply Reply

    Different dentist.  True story: I loved going to the dentist as a kid (Dr. Crane! you are missed.) My kids go to a great pediatric dentist.  There are toys, there is a movie playing on the ceiling, and they give them cool sunglasses so that the lights don’t bother them. And the joint sibling appointments work wonderfully for us. (I took my 15mo to my dentist, like a good mommy, and the woman was horrible and asked me why on earth I was still breastfeeding.  SHe is no longer my dentist. It’s not really relevant, but share my trauma, please.(
    All of this to say, there’s probably a better dentist for your kid out there. 

  17. Jennifer Apr 02 at 3:22 pm Reply Reply

    I wouldn’t worry too much about forcing them to endure, just make sure no matter how mad or upset you are you follow it up with hugs and comfort and reminding that everything is ok and it didn’t hurt etc.  Most of the time they’re fighting against the dentist because they’re in an unfamiliar situation, not because they’re trying to be a pain.  MOST of the time.  My daughter also fights me just to try and get her own way, like doing her hair, sitting at the table for supper, leaving Daycare and getting in her carseat – she LOVES Daycare Lady – you get the idea.  Those fights are completely different and I can tell which is which, but the end result is the same, she has to whether she wants to or not (though one usually involves time out before the hugs part).  Its part of being a kid.
    Most kids will not be traumatized because they were made to do something they didn’t want to do, but you know your child best, so you know what you can force – and how far – and what you can’t.

  18. Angie Apr 03 at 5:44 pm Reply Reply

    I threw up on my dentist when I was four. I hated the gritty special toothpaste with a passion. He agreed to do my cleanings with Crest until I was 11. He came to my wedding (He is also a friend of my dad’s). One bad experience does not ruin a child for life.

  19. Lindsay Apr 05 at 1:58 pm Reply Reply

    Yikes. If two strangers got in my two-year-old’s face like that, she’d do the exact same thing, no matter how many bears or different color toothbrushes. I do agree with Amy that it’s possible to over-prep for things like that, so I like her advice to maybe scale it back.

  20. Laura Apr 06 at 7:10 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with Amalah’s suggestion that maybe it was all a little to amped up – the two week lead in and then the dentist and assistant being a little too in your face. I have always taken the no- nonsense approach with my boys at the dentist and doctor and so far no melt downs (the typical post shot crying is all). Be honest and up front – and the calmer you stay (and the dang dentist!) the calmer she will be! And my sons can’t do bite wing xrays yet – so what!

  21. Mousemajor cavity. Apr 22 at 1:47 am Reply Reply

    If at all possible, I would suggest going with a different dentist.  We tried easing in with my older son and, due to a move, tried a couple different dentists with little luck.  We even went to one who claimed to have experience with kids with special needs (my son has Asperger’s and many sensory issues), and it was absolutely miserable.  I finally got a recommendation from a neighbor who has a kid with similar issues, and it has been so much better–even though the first visit was for a major cavity.  The original dentist we saw there has retired, but he carefully picked his replacement.  It’s a 45-minute drive one way for us, but worth taking the time off work!

  22. Jen Jan 10 at 12:11 pm Reply Reply

    Today we took our son to his first dentist visit. He just turned 2. It. Was. Disaster. Horrible. As soon as we entered the office and he realized it was a dentist office (he saw me at my dentist once, I didn’t show him pain or anything but…oh well) he began crying and telling me ‘let’s go home!’. I got to calm him down…until the dentist came out. He began to scream so loud and bad. We had to leave and reschedule the appointment … let’s see how that goes….

    Now I’m showing him videos of the dentist….and he will watch them until the day of the appointment. Hopefully he will get the idea… but oh my goodness!!! This was horrible!!!

  23. Connie Apr 09 at 12:42 am Reply Reply

    Toddlers and dentist don’t always mix, I waited quite a long time before taking my 2 1/2 year old to the dentist and this was because he had two teeth that were decaying because he had chipped them months before and they were actually decaying into his gums. This was a hard call for me he needed these two teeth pulled. I tried to figure which was best nitrous and possibly restrained or general. My husband and I decided against general it just seemed too risky putting a child so small under. So we opted nitrous, they did not need to do nitrous because he numbed very quickly but he was restrained. I must say it was hard on both of us, emotionally and mentally for me and him as well. I kept thinking about how bad I was, how I was a bad mom allowing my son to be restrained like that but it was better then infection.  Five minutes later that dentist not only had the two bad teeth removed, but also xrays taken and his teeth cleaned, it was that quick.  He quickly ran to me after the procedure and wrapped his tiny little arms around me, he nursed to sleep yes in the car, I held the gauze to stop the bleeding, and he woke up, upset. I thought for sure I had completely traumatized him for life.  A hour after we got home he was 100% himself, he was running, playing, laughing, cuddling, nursing the same little boy before.  Later that night I told him i needed to brush his teeth. I thought for sure he would refuse, cry, fall into a fetal position and flat out refuse, he did not he laid there and allowed me to brush his teeth well and even floss them.  My point is I think that sometimes us as parents think that our children are having the utmost horrible experience, because we don’t like the idea of being restrained ourselves but that’s not always the case, it depends on the child and how well the parent handles it. Lots of love and lots of cuddles after a horrible experience goes a long way.

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