Going to the dentist can be overwhelming for anyone. Now imagine how hard it must be for medically complex kids, who sometimes deal with truly scary procedures. For these kids, medical trauma can magnify feelings of dental anxiety until they become absolutely terrifying. But what is the alternative — not going to the dentist? Here are some helpful tips from Shani Thornton of ChildLifeMommy.com to help prepare your medically challenged child for a dental exam so they know what to expect and can feel more in control.

1. Choose a pediatric dentist

This is their specialty and the population that they enjoy working with. The office is typically designed in a warm, friendly environment with activities, murals and children’s tv programs. The hygienist and dentist are trained to explain what will take place and offer kids lots of choices during their exam.

2. Explore Through Play

Gather materials from around your house that will represent dental tools. Give your child the opportunity to explore and play the way they choose. Play-Doh makes a kit called, Drill ‘N Fill. My boys were excited to dig into this new activity, make their own teeth and then clean them with the dental tools provided. Of course the drill was their favorite!

3. Role Play Go through the steps of what will occur using the play materials and explain it using the five senses. For example, “There will be a large light over your head to help the dentist see more clearly in your mouth. It may feel warm and bright. You can choose to wear sunglasses or close your eyes.” You can also read books about going to the dentist. Here is a social story that I created on Shutterfly called Dental Checkup with Dr. Stacey Reynolds at Pediatric Dentistry of Garden City

4. Distraction and Coping Have your child pack a coping kit to bring along. They may want to bring a comfort item like a favorite toy, blanket or stuffed animal. They can pack their own sunglasses, music, headphones, and stress ball.

5. Validation and Encouragement When kids express their fears, don’t just rush to rescue them with a solution, validate with empathy first. “Mom, I don’t want to go. I don’t like the dentist.” You could say something like, “It is scary to go a new doctor, you really aren’t sure what will happen. I will be there to help you through it.” Then follow-up with choices for coping strategies, for instance listening to music, watching tv or taking deep breaths. Teach them a hand signal that they can use to let the dentist or yourself know they need a break.

6. Comfort Position Sometimes children need a little help laying back in the dental chair. It may be as simple as sitting next to them and holding their hand or advocating for a comfort position. I have held my child on my chest and lied back in the dental chair, to help support them during the exam. Using a lap cushion or having the weighted x-ray lead blanket may also work.

7. Check in and Reward Check in with your child and let them know that they are doing a great job. Point out specific things that they are working hard at such as, keeping their hands down, opening their mouth wide, holding their body still. Let them know how proud you are of them and let them choose a reward for their efforts. Usually pediatric dentists have stickers, character toothbrushes or small toys that they give kids.

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Shani Thornton
Shani Thornton is passionate about a few things in life: working as a Certified Child Life Specialist in private practice, parenting two amazing little boys and always pushing myself to do a little better. She's here to share tips on working with kids and adolescents and supporting caregivers during challenging times. Be sure to check out her children's book, "It's Time for Your Checkup: What to Expect When Going to a Doctor Visit" available on Amazon.
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