March 30, 2020
by Christie Simon
There are obvious advantages to making a kid-friendly dental practice. You’ll be serving an important segment of the population and you’ll increase your client base. There are potential pitfalls, too – children have a harder time communicating their needs to adults, and those who have never been to the dentist before might not understand why they’re there or what’s going to happen. You’ll also want to avoid having your practice so kid-friendly that adults will feel out of place. Fortunately, the balancing act isn’t too tricky and the tips here will help comfort children without throwing adults off:
Effective patient communication is one of the key skills of successful dental practices. When it comes to kids, this is doubly true. The initial phone call will almost never be with the child; instead, their parents will call, so you’ll be getting second-hand information. You’ll need to find out if the child has anxiety, has been to the dentist before, if they’re in pain, if they have any medical conditions, and all the other things you’d normally need to get from a patient. What’s more, you’ll need to communicate do’s and don’ts to the parents. You might refer the parents to this guide about how to talk to their kids. Emphasize that they shouldn’t tell the child “it won’t hurt”, and that they should focus on positives, not negatives. They should never lie to their child to lessen their fears, and they should bring up any fears their child relays before the visit. They shouldn’t bribe their child. You should also advise them that if they, themselves, have dental anxiety, they may be better off sending someone else with their child. Children will often sense and emulate the anxiety of others.
The reception area has to strike a fine balance; you want it to be child-friendly, but if you paint the walls pink and blue and throw giant stuffed teddy bears everywhere, you might lose some of your non-child clientele. Opt for child-friendly books and encourage kids (and their parents) to bring their own stuffed toys. You might even keep a cache of stuffed toys tucked away for when the occasion arises. You might also set a special “kids seat” aside so that the child feels special.
An important element of any practitioner-patient relationship is communication; you need the child to feel they can open up, talk about any discomforts they might be experiencing, and help guide your decision-making. Your reception desk should be low enough that the child can see over it. When that’s impossible, have the receptionist get to eye level with the child. This will encourage the child to think of your practice as a place with friendly relationships instead of a scary place with a big desk.
There are a few techniques you can use to make the first visit painless (quite literally). Staff should greet the parents first, and give them their full name; they should then greet the child. This shows the child that their parents trust dental staff, so they’re in good hands.
For a first time visit, keep things as simple as possible. Optimally, treat the visit as basic care and a meet and greet. For children who are quite nervous, you should avoid x-rays unless there are clear signs of health problems. You should also discuss with the parents and the child the procedures you’re going to go through, from counting teeth to fluoride treatments. Even if you see decay, you should opt not to treat it immediately if you can; instead, book a second appointment. You want the child’s first visit to be extremely positive.
You should be looking to accomplish a few things with your mannerisms. You want the child to feel comfortable and safe. You also want the child to do what you need them to. Finally, you want the child to feel like they have a measure of agency. Getting to eye level with children and using simple terms they’re likely to understand is a great start. When it comes to things you need the child to do, don’t phrase it as a question; instead, use gentle assertions: “Please have a seat in this chair for me” and “We’re going to count your teeth to keep your mouth strong and healthy” are good examples.
To help the child feel like they have a degree of control, give them some. Let them choose what channel to watch (age-appropriate, of course!) or what movie you put on. Ask them if they want you to adjust the chair for their comfort. Let them pick what flavor of fluoride they get if you’re still using foaming trays. This helps the child feel like they’re an active participant in their healthcare, a feeling we want to help them cultivate throughout their lives.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome with children is the phobia of needles. This is a tough hurdle for any patient, but kids are far more prone to the phobia. You can use a variety of techniques: desensitization, topical anaesthetic, active and passive distraction, muscle relaxation, and breathing exercises might all be useful to you. As always, focus on the positives – the child’s bravery, the benefits of the oral health routine, and how well things are going.
Take time to explain what a good oral health care routine looks like to the child and reiterate the importance of establishing good habits with the parents.
You may have noticed that in this article, what’s being touted are some tools you’ll use for every patient in your practice. Give them agency! Communicate with them! Be gentle, empathic, and receptive! The need for these things is simply amplified when you’re dealing with children because they don’t have the same rational or emotional faculties as adults. When they become comfortable with dentistry at an early age, they can make the best adult patients. Kids aren’t just great for your practice right now; they’re great for your future!
About the Author
Christie Simon is a writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She writes articles with a focus on marketing and social media for a variety of businesses. Some of her dentistry-focused work has been featured on the Bonasso & Kime website.