Never Fear, the Dentist Is Here

Medically Reviewed by Pamela R. Yoder, MD, PhD, FACOG on December 20, 2000
3 min read

Dec. 20, 2000 -- When it came time to take two of her three children to the dentist, Donna Redman, a bank recruiter from New York, would have her hands full.

But that was when her young sons, Kyle, 5, and Kellman, 7, were petrified of the dentist. "They were scared of the needles and the whole idea of a stranger going into their mouth and doing work," she tells WebMD.

Now she drives to a pediatric dentist in a different town, who is skilled at dealing with anxious kids. "He makes them feel at ease and lets them know that they have nothing to be scared of. He is very gentle and makes my sons feel comfortable by telling them what he is about to do and that as long as they cooperate, it's not going to hurt," Redman says.

Her kids are far from alone. In fact, for a variety of reasons -- from fear of the unknown to fear of drills or past trauma -- many children dread a visit to the dentist.

That's why researchers from Scotland set out to determine what makes a child panic when faced with, in the kids' opinion, the evil incarnation of the tooth fairy. The study findings appear in a recent issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.

In the study of 60 children aged 7-10 or 11-14, a little more than half were found to be anxious, and just under half were deemed nonanxious.

Those children who were anxious about visiting the dentist were more likely to have experienced traumatic and painful dental visits in the past, such as having a tooth pulled at a younger age, than their less fearful counterparts.

In addition, a sensitive dentist also appeared to be a factor, the study shows. Although most children -- anxious or not -- rated their past dentists as fairly sensitive, the serene kids were more likely to describe their dentists as having empathy.

Redman points out that she's not afraid of the dentist. However, in the study, anxious kids were also more likely to have anxious mothers, reports researcher Ellen Townend of the department of psychology at the University of Glasgow.

Barry Jacobsen, DMD, is the Redman family dentist. "We always start with behavior management [but] if child is not manageable, we use sedation," he says. In fact, he sedates Kyle and Kellman at times to make the procedures go more quickly and smoothly.

According to the study, many dentists are still wary of using anesthesia with young children, but certain pain management techniques can be safe -- and useful.

"A child's biggest anxiety is usually fear of the unknown," says Jay Levy, DDS, a dentist in New York, who sees a fair share of young patients.

"The way that we deal with that anxiety is to bring the child into the office when another child is being treated to show them what it is like and what goes on," he says. Called the modelling technique, this method often pairs a timid child with a cooperative child of similar age.

Levy also uses the "tell-show-do" method. This technique involves naming a dental instrument, demonstrating the instrument by using it to count on a child's fingers, then using the device.

"These tend to work quite well," he tells WebMD.

Moreover, these days, children are less likely to have cavities than older children. This cuts down on painful procedures. In fact, half of school-aged children never have a cavity because of fluoridated water supplies, which helps fight tooth decay.

"Children should see a dentist every six months for a lot of reasons, such as to see how their bite is developing and to check for cavities and gum disease," he says.

"An undiagnosed cavity in a child's tooth may have a permanent effect on adult teeth," Levy says.

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry agrees. They say most children should have a dental check-up at least twice a year. Some children may need more frequent visits because of increased risk of tooth decay, unusual growth patterns, or poor oral hygiene.