February is Children’s Dental Health Month, so it’s the perfect time to consider how you and your office interact with children as patients. Kids, just like adults, experience fear and anxiety about visiting the dentist, but they show it in different ways. There’s no magic formula for making things easy when it comes to treating kids, but here are a few practical tips that can help keep you and your child patients smiling.

Encourage parents to bring children in early

As a dentist, you know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This applies especially to children.

If a parent brings a child to the dentist for the first time because of a problem or pain, chances are the visit will involve a lot of anxiety and discomfort. But if the first visit is positive and routine, the child will become familiar with the process and will likely have a better attitude during future visits.

Whenever possible, stress to parents how important it is to begin bringing their children to visit the dentist early, by their first birthday or soon after their first tooth appears. It’s not just about providing great oral health care in the early stages of life but also about acclimating the child to the entire process of visiting the dentist regularly.

Know the territory

Pediatric dentists understand that they often have to know just as much about Ariel and Spider-Man as they do about x-rays and cavities. Communicating with kids is crucial and can make them more comfortable, helping to distract them from dental procedures. Look for topics beyond the dental visit that can spur the child’s interest, such as favorite cartoons, movies, school subjects, hobbies, sports, foods or games.

Whenever possible, sit down or keep low so that you’re at the same level when you’re talking to kids, and maintain good eye contact. It’s natural to want to address the parent-caregiver first and foremost, but establishing a communication link with the patient is key. Ask questions and practice active listening to help establish rapport and trust.

Finding common ground can go a long way in making the experience less stressful for everyone. At the end of an appointment, jot down a few notes about the child’s interests so you’ll have something to ask about during the next visit. Your patients will feel special because you’ve remembered them.

Stay calm

Communication doesn’t happen only through words but also through your body language. A child’s behavior may have you feeling stressed and angry, but it’s important to keep control of the situation by staying calm. Children read facial expressions (even through a mask), so you don’t want to give the impression that you’re frustrated or impatient, which will only cause the child’s anxiety to increase. Even if the child starts to misbehave, try to make the situation light and keep any stress to yourself. Your attitude and body language can be important elements in gaining the trust of the child and shaping a positive dental visit.

Create a child-friendly environment

You and your staff have probably taken great care to ensure that the front desk and waiting area of your practice are calm and friendly spaces, but take another good look through the eyes of a child. Be sure to keep your waiting room stocked with appealing, clean and functional toys, stuffed animals, books and games, and even consider creating a special dedicated child-friendly area of the room.

A waiting area that includes distractions will help keep children occupied while waiting for the dentist. There are some excellent resources along these lines, including activity books, cards and coloring sheets, from the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Delta Dental likewise offers resources for kids that teach about dental health:

When the child is in the dental chair, unfamiliar faces can be scary, so only allow necessary dental personnel (such as the dentist and hygienist) and caregivers around the patient. Too many people coming and going, speaking and giving directions in complicated language the child doesn’t understand may only cause more anxiety.

At the end of a visit, reinforce good behavior with praise and little rewards like stickers or other prizes (You can keep rewards relevant to the child’s age and interests by offering the child a choice among various rewards). If your office recognizes and rewards good behavior, the visit can become a pleasant experience, even one the child looks forward to rather than dreads.

Explain, demonstrate and offer choices

Children’s fear and anxiety often come from not understanding what is about to happen. Kids are naturally curious and very hands-on, so always tell a child what you are going to do beforehand.

Use language children can understand. Pediatric dentists have practically developed a whole second language of child-friendly terminology to speak about equipment and procedures. The same child who panics at the mention of the words “drill” or “extraction” may remain much calmer if you speak of a “buzzer” or “wiggling the tooth out” instead.

Making the child feel informed and in control can also go a long way in reducing nervousness around equipment that can otherwise seem loud, scary and strange. For instance, you might explain how a suction tool works and then allow a child to briefly hold it while you demonstrate how it operates, or explain that a face shield protects you when you’re at work the way an astronaut’s helmet protects her when she’s exploring outer space.

Even young children have preferences and like to feel important. Offering children choices in simple matters (for instance, which color dental bib would they like, what angle feels best for the headrest, etc.) can help provide feelings of control and autonomy. When children feel less helpless, they feel less stressed and are easier to treat.

Children and your practice

Treating children presents its own special set of challenges, but your flexibility and ability to communicate can be essential factors for effective dental care. Guiding the child’s behavior through positive interaction and communication can help ensure a smoother and easier dental visit for everyone.