Overcoming Sensory Issues at the Dentist

There are a lot of sensory elements that come with your child’s visit to the dentist. The bright lights, loud noises, tastes and smells of oral care products can all cause sensory issues and anxiety for patients with autism. Even being touched by the dental staff can cause feelings of anxiety.

I have been practicing family dentistry for 17 years and am aware of the fear your child may be feeling. As a dentist, it’s our goal to make your child as comfortable as possible, and you can help too.

Here are some do’s and don’ts of what you can do to help your child overcome these sensory issues.

DO: Find ways to prepare for your child’s visit

Getting your child used to what they can expect at the dentist is a great start to overcoming sensory issues they may have. Some ways to do this are by starting at home. You can role play what a dental visit will be like by having your child lay on their back with their feet out and their hands on their stomach. Have them try opening their mouth open and wide. If they’re comfortable, you can also use an electric toothbrush to get them used to the vibrations.

Another way to help your child become familiar with the dentist is to schedule a desensitization appointment. Most pediatric and special needs dentists offer these types of appointments and they are a great way to meet the office and staff ahead of time and give your child an opportunity to see the dental office.

DON’T: Force the appointment

Your child may be hesitant or closed-off to the idea of visiting the dentist at first, and that’s okay. Don’t force it. Forcing the appointment can cause feelings of anger or hatred against the dentist. Instead, work slowly and take small steps. As mentioned before, a desensitization appointment can help in these instances by letting your child get a sense of what the dentist office looks like before the real appointment.

Once you can get the first appointment scheduled, there are a couple things you can do during the visit to try and keep hesitant feelings at a minimum. First, reducing the waiting time once you arrive at the dentist is important. Waiting for extended periods of time can be difficult and cause feelings of anxiety, so getting the appointment started as soon as possible will help with this. Communicating with the front office staff is a great way to minimize any wait time. Also, not showing up too early for your child’s appointment will help too and the visit can get started right away.

Taking frequent breaks during the visit is also a great way to help with the overwhelming feelings your child may have by giving your child a moment to close their mouth, sit up for a minute, or whatever it is they need.

DO: Use visuals & other tools

Visuals can be used in a number of ways to help overcome sensory issues at the dentist. They can be used while preparing for your child’s dental appointment and at the appointment itself. Before the visit, you can read a picture book about a dentist appointment or even create your own. This can allow your child to see what it may be like. You can also look up photos of your dentist and their office online which is another great way for your child to make that visual connection of what the dentist appointment will be like.

Using visuals and other tools while the appointment can be a great tool too. If your child has a favorite movie or TV show, consider bringing an iPad or portable DVD player to their visit to help distract them from what is happening in their math. Likewise, a favorite toy or fidget item can help be a great distraction from the work that the dentist is doing.

DON’T: Do nothing

Your child trusts you and will most likely rely on you to help them overcome the sensory issues they may have in regard to the dentist. If it’s your child’s first visit to the dentist, you are probably just as anxious as them but it’s important that you still do your part in preparing them for what to expect at their appointment. If you don’t, there is a risk of the appointment going poorly which can make them hesitant to visit the dentist again.

DO: Speak up

Remember that as a parent, you are in control of your child’s dentist appointment. If at any time you feel uncomfortable or can sense your child becoming too overwhelmed, speak up. Listen to your parental instinct and don’t let the appointment continue. Your dentist will understand, and you don’t have to feel bad for speaking up and looking out for your child. That’s your job.

DON’T: Stay quiet

You don’t want to stay quiet during your child’s dentist appointment. Any concerns you have should be made known. If your child’s appointment isn’t going smoothly or as planned, you need to say something. As mentioned before, your child is probably relying on you to help overcome the sensory issues they may be having. If you can tell they are overwhelmed, speak up and have them take a break before continuing the appointment. Speaking up for your child will help eliminate hesitant feelings in the future because they know you will have their back the entire visit.

The dentist office can be an overwhelming place, and a lot of sensory issues can arise from this. However, there are ways to overcome these issues and turn it into something positive. The dentist office can be a great learning experience for you and your child. Your dentist will work to make the visit be as comfortable as possible, and these steps will help make your child’s visit be a better experience.

To learn more about Dr. Greg Grillo, please visit www.dentably.com

Author, Dr. Greg Grillo

Dr. Greg Grillo has practiced dentistry in North Central Washington for more than 17 years, balancing his clinical practice with a role as the Content Director at a rapidly growing dental software company. He is also a member of the Emergency Dentists USA team. Dr. Grillo and his wife, Lisa, have 3 children. Outside the office, he can be found snow skiing, hiking, playing tennis, or just enjoying the outdoors.