To a small child, unfamiliar places often frighten and confuse. When the space is filled with strange adults, bulky machinery, and occasional whirring noises from dental drills, children may be distraught and difficult to soothe.

For parents with small children, visits to the dentist can require them to use some combination of cajoling and stern warnings of timeouts or naps to allow the dentist time to complete their examination or treatment. If your child is struggling with dental appointments, here are some tips parents can use to de-stress these difficult situations and help your child feel more comfortable during visits to the dentist. 

1. Switch to a pediatric dentist

Parents who have been taking their child to a regular dentist may see improvement in their child's reactions to dental care quickly by simply switching to a pediatric dentist. Dental care practices focus on treating children and are immediately discernible because they choose to furnish and decorate their waiting areas and treatment spaces with bright colors and furnishings that attract the attention of children. 

In the waiting areas, pediatric dentists typically offer safe play areas with an assortment of child-friendly activity tables, books, and toys. Child-appropriate music is usually played over the sound system and staff members often dress in casual uniforms or scrubs made with bright colors, animal prints, or superhero motifs. 

Pediatric dentists can also offer your child more options to make dental treatment less stressful. Many offer the use of child-safe medications to relieve anxiety during the procedure and the option of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) to provide gentle sedation.

2. Allow your child to become more familiar

When switching to a pediatric dentist, parents will need to allow plenty of time for their child to become familiar with the office, the waiting area, and the staff that work there. Most pediatric dentists are happy to allow their new patients and their parents to visit and explore their practice a few times before actually having the first examination or beginning any type of dental treatment. Each visit works to help the child feel more familiar and comfortable so they will be less fearful of examinations and treatment. 

3. Utilize favorite books, games, and music

Many pediatric dentists also encourage parents to utilize favorite books, games, and music to help their children relax. Parents are encouraged to bring along tablets or smartphones that their child can use with sound-canceling headphones during the dental procedure. Some practices may also use strategically placed wall-mounted televisions on which popular children's shows and movies play during appointments. 

4. Extend the offer of a favorite activity

Encouraging good behavior at the dentist can sometimes be accomplished using a reward system. Since good nutrition and proper dental health is critically important for the developing child's teeth, parents will want to refrain from offering sugary treats or the empty calories of most fast food choices as rewards. 

Instead, parents should consider developing a list of activities and outings that their child enjoys. To help encourage compliance, parents can come up with small activities to reward good behavior after each appointment and larger activities to reward after more stressful appointments, such as those that involve fillings, extractions, or other more invasive dental procedures.

Small rewards for good behavior might include spending the night with grandparents or an afternoon at the park. Examples of larger rewards might include a trip to nearby amusement or water park or the purchase of a yearned-for toy. 

Parents who have additional questions about pediatric dental exams should take time to visit a pediatric dental care clinic and speak to the dentists and staff.