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Kid Friendly Language for Dental Visits

written by samantha tillapaugh from the debtist

When I was going to dental school, we had an entire lesson dedicated to how we should talk to children about their upcoming dental visits. The fact is that a child’s perception of dentistry can vastly alter their overall dental health for the remaining years of their life. Most adults who report being dental phobic relate their fears to a previous traumatic experience in their childhood. Some report their anxieties as being passed down from a fearful parent who reiterated the narrative that the dental office is a scary place. And then, of course, we dentists have the media to thank for instilling this fear as well. 

Regardless of the cause, it appears that a child’s perception of their dentist visits greatly shape whether they have positive experiences with dentistry in their adulthood or not. It is for this precise reason that I am going to take the time and share with parents my favorite kid-friendly terms when talking about their upcoming visit. These are the ways in which I explain dental procedures to little ones.

How to Talk to Children About Their Dental Visits

Bogobrush kids

Check Up Exams

I always tell my kid patients that I am going to “count their teeth”. I will ask them how many they think they have prior to asking them to open their mouth. This adds interaction while also creating an opportunity for me to gain their trust. I show them the mirror and ask them if they can see themselves in it. Then I explain that I will use the mirror to see in their mouth and my “tooth counter” will be used to count their teeth. I tell them that I will turn on a bright light to see in the dark cave, and offer them sunglasses to wear if they wish to shade their eyes. Then, I ask them to open wide like an alligator. If they refuse, I will sometimes ask them to say “Ahhh”. I count their teeth out loud and sometimes they will chime in. At the very end, I ask them to close and give me a BIG smile. 

X-Rays

I call x-rays “pictures.” I ask the kids to help me in taking pictures by sitting super still while the camera goes “beep”. To make them feel better, I put the “heavy blanket” on them. I also show them their digital x-rays on the computer screen and thank them for their help. 

Cleanings

For their cleanings, I tell them that we are going to clean off any left-over food. If they have a lot of plaque, I show them so they know that brushing needs improvement. I call the polishing paste “toothpaste” and the polisher an “electric toothbrush”. This is a great opportunity to ask them if they have an electric toothbrush at home. I also call fluoride treatment tooth vitamins, and tell them not to eat or drink for thirty minutes so that they avoid washing off the vitamins – otherwise their teeth can’t get as strong! 

Numbing

I call the anesthetic “sleepy juice.” I explain to kids that we need to put their teeth to sleep so that we can clean out the “sugar bugs” comfortably. I first put some “jelly” which is a topical gel that helps them with the shot. Placing the jelly first gives me an opportunity to gauge their anxiety level. If they wince when I show them the Q-tip with the gel, then I already let mom know that they can hold the kid’s hand to make sure they are comfortable and safe. When I go in for the numbing, I avoid showing them the needle. I also wiggle their lip while asking them to wiggle their toes, as a form of distraction. Other things that help are having the parents ask them questions about their day, having the television on if there is one, and having the assistant spray water continually. I tell the child that their lip will feel very sleepy soon. “It will start to feel heavy in the same way that we feel heavy when we are tired.” Then I have them bite down on a cotton gauze which I call a “pillow” to let the teeth fall asleep for ten minutes before starting any work on them. Depending on how well they do with this part of the appointment, I give the parents at this time a heads up on what to expect for the next few steps. 

Fillings

I always say we will give the teeth a shower, using the term “water sprayer” whenever I refer to the drill. The etchant, bonding agent, and composite filling are described as shampoo, conditioner, and soap respectively, as I apply them one step at a time. I say that the “magic light” helps me to put the filling in, and tell them that we have to “wash the soap away” when in reality, I am polishing the filling at the very end. 

Extractions

I tell children that I will help them wiggle their tooth. I ask if they have ever wiggled their tooth before at home, and explain to them that I will do the exact same thing. Instead of focusing on what is going to happen (since extractions are mostly scary for children), I focus on the reward after, such as the visit from a tooth fairy, or the fact that the tooth will no longer bother them! This is the hardest thing for parents to explain, but what is important to remember is to avoid (at all costs!) the list of words we shall never say to children when describing their dental visit.

Words to Never Say

There are words that we should avoid saying to prevent placing negative connotations in children’s minds. These include the words “needle”, “shot” and “hurt.” Instead of saying “hurt”, I always say “feel funny” or “feel weird”. Most kids cannot identify the exact feelings associated with dental treatment, but prepping them beforehand with terms such as “weird” or “funny” will alert them to an interesting sensation that may not be comfortable but is NOT pain. (In fact, pain is a perceived feeling more than an actual feeling, and we can reduce our experience of pain by changing the way we perceive what we are experiencing. This has been proven many times. Ask the monks!)

Alternative Phrases to Common Dental Terms

 Below, I include a list of words and phrases to avoid, along with an alternative phrase that I use.

Words to Avoid

Alternative Phrases

Needle or Shot

Sleepy juice, sleepy medicine

Pain

Feel Weird or Feel Funny

Numbing gel

Jelly (It’s flavored!)

Drill

Water Sprayer, Shower Head

Drill on teeth

Wash the sugar bugs

Pull, yank, or extract a tooth

Wiggle a tooth out

Decay, Cavity

Sugar Bug

Suction

Mr. Thirsty

Mouth prop

Tooth pillow

Water/Air Sprayer

Squirt Gun

Dental explorer 

Tooth Counter

Nitrous Oxide

Funny Mask, Happy Air

Dental Chair

Chair Ride (like Disneyland!)

Flouride 

Tooth Vitamins

Xrays

Tooth Pictures

Lead Shield

Heavy Blanket


A Few Closing Thoughts

The point of changing the language we use around children is not to fool children. In fact, fooling children is the easiest way to traumatize them. When a child loses their trust with their dentist, that trust could remain lost forever. It becomes harder to win them back, and they may develop a habit of avoiding the dental office altogether. 

This is why I always prep the child and parent, by telling them in these friendly terms what is going to happen next. If they ask me an outright question, such as “Is this going to be a shot?”, I tell them the truth. “Yes, but this isn’t like the shots you’ve had before. This is going to be different because you have jelly which will help and we will wiggle your cheek so you won’t feel it very much.” Sometimes, I demonstrate what they will feel on their hand, by giving them a gentle pinch. I show them the water spray, and practice spraying water in their mouth before administering the shot. 

Lastly, I never force children to do what they don’t want to do. I think parents can be helpful in establishing a sense of authority so that we can try our best, but I do not utilize papoose boards and do not support holding kids down. I find that most of the time, if we are not “successful” in getting the treatment done that day, we can still find success in other ways if we redefine what success looks like. Simply spending the entire one-hour appointment talking and playing with the child gets you one step closer for their next appointment, a few weeks down the road. The most important thing is to create a dental home for children, one in which they feel safe and supported enough to return to. Language can help with that, but at the end of the day, actions will always speak louder than words.

 The Debtist Bogobrush

we’ve partnered with samantha tillapaugh, a general dentist practicing in southern california, to help spread the word about all cool things dental. when she isn’t sharing informative posts about teeth with us, she is writing at her own lifestyle blog as thedebtist. aside from writing, she travels the world, reads plenty of books sidled up next to her adopted, toothless cat, bakes sourdough bread and works as a tooth-fairy.