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Supporting Your Child’s Oral Health – Preparing Children for the Dentist

A child life specialist at Cook Children's shares how to prepare and support your children as they visit the dentist during National Children's Dental Health Month.

By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's

Going to the dentist and taking your kids to the dentist may bring up a lot of emotions and most likely some anxiety for many of us. One of my own traumatic memories as a child was at a dentist appointment. I was scheduled to have several teeth pulled for orthodontic purposes, and in short, I refused to let the dentist touch me. My mom called my dad from the dentist office to convince me to do it, and then they both decided after complete refusal that it would be better if I went to a pediatric dentist where there may be more options for me as a kid. This was in the 1990s, and thankfully things have changed for the better over the last thirty years. However, the fears that we experienced ourselves as a child can very much affect how we approach the dentist with our own children. I often tell people that my dental experiences may be the very reason I became a child life specialist.

While there may be fears and hesitancy, oral health among children is incredibly important. The CDC reports, “On average, 34 million school hours are lost each year because of unplanned (emergency) dental care, and over $45 billion in US productivity is lost each year due to untreated dental disease.” They also report that “By age 8, over half of children (52%) have had a cavity in their primary (baby) teeth.” In our area, Cook Children’s Community Health Needs Assessment found:

  • 1 in 4 children in our 8-county service area does NOT have excellent or very good dental health.
  • 1 in 7 children (ages 1-17) in our 8-county service area did not receive all needed dental care.

This month is National Children’s Dental Health Month, and we want to help you know how to prepare and support your children as they visit the dentist. We know that this area can be challenging for kids and parents to navigate, and we want to give you tools so that you and your child can feel more comfortable in the dentist chair. Lack of dental care can lead to even more traumatic medical and dental experiences for children. Our hope is that these tools can empower you and your child to not fear their next dental visit. In speaking with Betsy Hillyard, CCLS, oral health program coordinator at Cook Children’s Center for Community Health, she shared some top things to remember in preparing for the dentist. As a certified child life specialist (CCLS), Betsy not only helps and prepares children, she also educates parents, community partners, and dental professionals on working with children through dental experiences. GettyImages-1156871564

1. Know what to expect! If it is your child’s first-ever dental visit, make sure that you know what your children will be doing once they are there. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends for children to see a dentist by their first birthday or once their first tooth has emerged. Often between the ages of 6 months to 3 years, children visit the dentist only for a lap visit for the dentist to count teeth, address any early concerns that may come up and educate families on proper oral health. Parents are often invited to be a part of these visits. As it becomes time for your child to begin getting their teeth cleaned, it is important for them to know whether you will be with them or not, what processes their dentist has (x-rays, cleaning, fluoride, etc.), and what they can do while they are in the dentist chair (watch a movie, listen to music, etc.). Betsy encourages to even ask your dentist if you could go and take a tour of the office before the visit. The more information you know about your child’s visit will help you be able to prepare your child more effectively for the most positive experience.

2. Prepare your child. It is so important for your children and you to know what to expect before going to the dentist so that you can use that information to help prepare your child for their specific appointment. There are lots of tools available to help you prepare them and provide you with child appropriate language. You can read books about the dentist, play dentist with some stuffed animals or dolls, practice opening big and wide, and watch some videos to help them have an idea of what to expect. Betsy created a video to help kids know what to expect when headed to the dentist. Seeing the tools that will be used and the process is very helpful to your child. Betsy recommends having your child draw a picture of what they expect about their visit before they go and then having them draw another picture about their experience after their appointment.

  1.  A note about children with sensory needs: If your child struggles with certain noises or other sensations, it is important to work with your dental office to discuss possible comfort items and adaptations that are available to help your child. Having a conversation or appointment before to discuss this can be very helpful. Often weighted or warm blankets, earphones and sunglasses can be provided to help your child. Also, if your child has a certain comfort item, plan to bring that along like you would for a doctor’s appointment.

GettyImages-8999479643. Keep it positive. It can be difficult for some adults to be positive about their own dental appointments and experiences. However, children pick up on our fears and worries and will often adopt your feelings before ever having their own experience. So, when preparing your child for the dentist, be careful and intentional with your words. When discussing the dentist and dental hygienist with your children, be careful not to use the dentist as a threat or a bad thing that they will experience. Make sure that you remind your children that dental appointments are necessary and helpful to our health and dentists help keep our mouths and teeth healthy. If you have your own fears of the dentist, make sure that you do not project those fears on your children. While validating their nerves and addressing their fears is encouraged, it is important not to make going to the dentist seem like a negative place or punishment. Use encouraging language with your children when discussing their appointments and be sure to praise your children when they do a good job at their appointments. 

When you know what to expect, take the time to prepare your children for their visit, and keep it positive, the dentist can be a great experience for your kids. Preventative dental care and oral health is so important to our children’s overall health and development. The more that we can do to prevent unplanned and emergent dental care, the more we support our children’s healthcare experiences and emotional safety. Thankfully my kids are having a much more developmentally appropriate and positive experience at their dental appointments than I did as a kid. We want to continue to support our children in making good choices for their health including their oral health.

SaveaSmile_Feb23_835457Resources and Education:

Please visit Cook Children’s Center for Community Health - Oral Health website for many resources and further education:


Let’s Meet a Dentist by Bridget Heos, Daniel Goes to the Dentist by Alexandra Cassel Schwartz


Visiting the Dentist with Betsy Hillyard, CCLS Ask a Dentist with Dr. Sheela Patel

Sesame Street: A Trip to the Dentist

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf   

Ashley PagenkopfAshley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.