7 Tips to Help Your Child at the Dentist

Going to the dentist can be overwhelming with feelings of fear and anxiety for both parents and children. Here are some helpful tips to help prepare your 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 speciality 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!dentalplaycollage

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 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.dentalplay1

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.

Additional Resources

Dental Checkup
Click Here to Read

Social Story Book on a Dental Checkup

Using Play to Help Prepare for a Dental Checkup

DIY Dentist

38 thoughts on “7 Tips to Help Your Child at the Dentist

  • I like your comment about not rushing in to fix the problems when your child expresses fear, this unlikely strategy is vital to their empowerment. Thank you for this, I work with kids and helping them overcome fears believe it or not!

  • My son has a big problem with dentists. It is the strangest thing because in every other situation he is easily the most placid of my children, but he has a big fear of going in even to get a cleaning. It is interesting to me that you suggest working most on communication in this situation. I have never considered this approach, and I think that I will be able to help him understand that this is necessary to help his teeth. http://www.oshawadentalhouse.com/

    • A trip to the dentist can be difficult for kids and adults. It is an overstimulating environment with the doctors in your personal space. You don’t have the option to see what is occurring and have to trust that they are not going to hurt your body. Unless you hold up a large mirror. Try responding empathically with him and teaching him what will occur using his five sense. Best of Luck.

  • I really like your tip about bringing a coping kit! My son has a really hard time at the dentist and I know that bringing his blanket and some of his favorite toys would really help him calm down. I think that giving him a reward after would also be a really great thing to do. I’ll have to talk with our dentist about some other tips that he might have.

  • I didn’t know that there were pediatric dentists I could take my son to. I am a first time mom and wanting to try to make the best experience for my son when taking him to the dentist so he is not afraid going forward. I will definitely have to research a local pediatric dentist so that they will know how to specifically cater to the needs of kids. Thanks for all the great tips, I will have to try them all out to help prepare him for the appointment!

  • Hi Shani,
    I came across your Child Life Mommy page, and wanted to reach out. I am a CCLS in an in-between stage of my career, and I am interested in starting services in private practice, and/or a setting that does not have services at the moment. I am working on marketing/promoting CL services in dental offices, and see where that leads. I was wondering if you had any advice, and what your experience has been like in private practice as a Child Life Specialist? Any information/advice you have would be helpful. Thank you for taking the time to help!
    Noelle Jurimas

  • I like what you said about role playing before you go to the dentist. I’m taking my daughter to the dentist for the first time, and I want her to be comfortable there. I think if we play dentist on dolls and her stuffed animals, so that she knows what to expect. Also, I’ll be sure to sit by her, and hold her hand, so she feels comfortable in the big chair.

  • My daughter is finally old enough to go to the dentist. I really like your advice on teaching them about what will happen at the cleaning, through toys and playing. If my daughter knows what’s going on, I think she will do just fine!

  • I think it is so important for kids to go to the dentist. If nothing else, it helps them get in the habit of frequenting the dentist. But they can get their cavities filled and teeth cleaned and by bringing them when they’re younger, they will probably have better oral health.

  • I love going to see the dentist! The way your teeth feel afterwards is totally worth it to me. I think that is so cute and fun that there are pediatric dentists to help ensure that your kids have the best experience possible so they can enjoy it as well.

  • I am looking at taking my son to the dentist soon, and I want to make sure it is a smooth experience. As you mentioned, choosing the right dentist that creates a comfortable environment for the kids is critical. These are some great ideas to help the dentist visit! I hadn’t thought of doing a role play. Thanks for sharing!

  • I thought your idea about using role play as a way to prepare your child for the dentist was such a fun idea. My brother is going to take his son to the dentist soon and he wants to make sure it is a great experience. Once he finds a good dentist, I’ll have to sit down with his son and talk about and give examples of what exactly happens at the dentist.

  • I really appreciate the tips about helping kids at the dentist. My wife and I have been having trouble with our son, because he is very afraid of the dentist. I like your tip about roleplaying with the child before you go in. That way, he can see that there is nothing to be afraid of.

  • My sister is trying to figure out how to get my nephew to be okay with going to the dentist. I liked that you talked about how comfort could be a way to get him to be more at ease. It is good to know that holding the kid’s hands could be a good thing to be aware of. My nephew has a blanket that gives him comfort and perhaps he should take it with him to the dentist office.

  • I love your point about choosing the right dentist for my kids is super important. My husband and I have been thinking about changing dentists, but didn’t know how to go about the change. I love your idea to play dentist at home, so it doesn’t feel so scary. I agree that there is a balance of encouragement and comfort to help my kids feel like the dentist is a great experience.

  • I appreciate that you mentioned it’s important to validate a child with empathy first and then figure out coping strategies. Often times, sometimes a kid just wants to make sure that you have their back. In my opinion, patience is key. If you are patient throughout this process, it will be worth it for a positive experience.

  • Hi Child Life Mommy,

    Dental issues in children is a very big issue. Children avoid to take care of their teeths and when parents ask them to clean their teeth & proper brushing, they fights. My friend’s son also has the same issue in teeth cleaning. He was suffering from the tooth decay & they went to http://www.openyourmouth.com/ for the treatment.

  • My son is almost old enough for his first dentist appointment. I like what you said about role playing before hand. That way he knows what to expect, and he isn’t surprised or nervous.

  • Hey, I love tip #4. My child does not want any of her hands free most of the time. She’s so playful. I’d probably bring her drawing kit instead of toys because she loves sketching! 🙂

  • Our sons dentist really earned our sons trust by showing what he was going to do on a doll be fore performing the procedure. This really helped our son relax through the whole thing, which made everyone’s life easier. http://www.nocavitybug.com

  • My son has to go to the dentist soon and I would love to help him get comfortable with the idea. That is a great idea to try and find some toys or materials around the house that look like dental tools so he can get used to what he might be seeing! If he could see the things before hand and know what the dentist might do that would be a huge help. Thanks for the tips!