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Parenting Guide: Health Care

Local professionals offer tips for parents whose young children fear a trip to the dentist or orthodontist.

Spend just a few minutes with any pediatric dentist or orthodontist, and it usually becomes quite clear why they got into the field in the first place. Most come off as cheerful, positive people who genuinely take pride in helping patients, and their gentle approach works well with youngsters who may not know what to expect from the experience.

That can be crucial because, while most kids seem to be able to handle a visit to the dentist or orthodontist, there are still those who dread their regular checkups and need help overcoming their anxiety. Thankfully, there are plenty of steps parents can take to ease their concerns, and finding the right professional who understands and embraces working with kids can also go a long way in improving the situation.

We spoke to several dentists and orthodontists from the Central Florida region to find out some helpful tips to alleviate the concerns of children nervous about getting their teeth examined.

Stay Positive

It is recommended that parents bring children in for their first visit with a dentist by age 2 or 3, and making it a successful experience starts at home. That means no filling their little heads with horror stories, especially tales from the parents’ own childhood.

“The most important thing that I usually talk to parents about is making sure that whatever they mention to their child at home has to be positive: no negative stories, no threats about us using a huge needle if they get cavities,” says Dr. Lissette Bernal, a pediatric dentist at Winter Garden Smiles. “I tell them to keep everything super positive, and even if they’ve had a bad experience in the past with another dentist, we don’t want to discuss that anymore because we don’t want them thinking about those things when they come to us for their first visit.”

Bernal adds that reading children a book, showing them videos about going to the dentist or even role playing can all be beneficial. Orthodontists usually see children who are a little bit older, but Dr. Lauris Johnson of My Family Orthodontics says the same rules apply.

“Most kids are young and very impressionable, so if you tell them that it’s going to be a good experience, the doctor is just going to look at their smile and talk about how to fix their teeth, you can do that,” she says. “But don’t tell them negative stories about what’s going to happen or how bad it’s going to hurt. I don’t think parents mean to, but they don’t realize how much pressure that puts on me as a doctor and even my staff to have to try to manage the kids.”

Dr. Breck Brewer of Fravel Brewer Orthodontics agrees and says it’s best to let children have their own experiences and make up their own minds. He also stresses that it’s important to bring them in before any problems arise.

“They can get used to the office and find out it’s not so bad if they just have to go in for a regular checkup and cleaning,” he says. “If you wait until they’re already in pain, there are more procedures to get them out of that pain and they’re going to associate it with pain. So it’s always helpful to go in when the stakes are low and the child can get used to the situation.”

Be Informative

Once the child arrives for the appointment, it’s important for the dentist or orthodontist to be upfront and honest about everything they’ll be doing, so that nothing takes them by surprise.

“Tell-show-do is a technique we learn as dentists in school to use with the younger kids or even patients with special needs to show them what we’re going to do before we do anything, and to do it in a friendly way,” Johnson says. “For instance, we call the suction machine Mr. Thirsty, and we’ll show them that. Or the drill, which is the main thing patients get upset about, I will let them touch it and hold it and then I might show them how it spins and explain that it just has a little bit of a vibration.”

For Brewer, because most of his patients are not yet ready for braces or other appliances when he first sees them, he spends the first meeting mostly getting to know them and explaining what he does.

“The only thing we’re really going to do that day is capture some X-rays, take some photos of their teeth, perhaps take a scan of their mouth, which is a very simple process, and then we’re going to talk and I’m going to a quick exam of their teeth,” he says. “This is going to provide lots of great information about where they are in their development: how many baby teeth they have, how their jaw and their bite look. The kids get to come in and see our office and get used to everything without having anything happen that day.”

Because establishing good habits at a young age is critical, Bernal will spend time reinforcing what the kids can do at home.

“We go over preventive stuff, like how long they should be brushing, the amount of fluoride toothpaste they should use, their diet—things to help prevent them from getting cavities in the future,” she says. “We also want them to get used to coming to the dentist every six months, so that way they know they’re not just coming for an emergency or if something is hurting.”

Make it Fun

Bright colors in the office, video game systems in the waiting room and TVs in the exam rooms are staples at most offices geared toward children, and Bernal also encourages families to bring in a favorite stuffed animal or blanket to make the child more comfortable.

Fravel Brewer Orthodontics has a Future Smiles Club in which kids receive a T-shirt and spin a prize wheel where they can win gift cards to local restaurants or ice cream parlors, and they also get rewarded for good hygiene.

“We try very to make the atmosphere in our office enjoyable and fun,” Brewer says. “It instills the mentality that this place isn’t so bad. We want the kids to come in and want to come back.”

Earn Their Trust

Familiarity with a certain doctor can be key to children overcoming fear of the dentist or orthodontist, so it helps to build that rapport.

“Many of the kids have been with me since starting when they were little,” Bernal says. “It’s good if you can stick with the same provider, because you get to know how they are, especially the ones who are little more anxious, and you know what to expect and how to prepare.”

That is why Johnson always likes getting to know her patients on a personal level and ultimately building a relationship that will last.

“Usually what I do before I even look at their mouth is just talk to them, find out what they like to do, if they play sports, if they’ve seen a certain movie,” she says. “For instance, right now during the summer I’ll say, ‘School is out, what are you doing?’ They get excited and it’s kind of a positive distraction. I just want them to know that I care about them as a person and it’s not just me going in there and fixing their teeth. Usually, if you can gain their trust, they’re a lot more at ease throughout the process.”

Hope for the Fight Against Alzheimer’s

About 10 years ago, as Amanda Harris’ father was losing his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and there was nothing she could do to help him, she decided to focus her energy in a positive way by joining the Alzheimer’s Association Central and North Florida Chapter. Now, after five years as a volunteer and five more as a staff member, she is finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel for the many families, like hers, that have been impacted by the irreversible, progressive brain disorder.

While there is clearly much more work to be done in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, recent breakthroughs in research have led to medications that can target the plaque buildup in the brain associated with the disease.

“For a long time, there was no hope,” Harris says. “You kind of hoped to hope, and now we actually do have hope. We’ve got new FDA-approved treatments for the first time ever that help slow the progression of the disease, so we’re giving families a little more time with their loved ones, and that’s the first time we can say that. So it’s very exciting. These new treatments remove plaque in the brain, and with their success they can help us better understand the disease and what causes it.”

Drugs such as aducanumab and lecanemab have already been approved, while others like donanemab “are in the pipeline,” according to Harris.

“One of our amazing doctors who works with us, Dr. Maria Carrillo, likes to say that we could see treatment cocktails in the future that impact different areas of the brain as they’re figuring out what works best,” she continues. “We know that plaque in the brain is a strong indicator of what causes Alzheimer’s. We still don’t know what actually causes it, but we know that the plaques are part of it. Since clearing the plaque slows the progress of the disease through these new treatments, it gets us closer to understanding the biology of Alzheimer’s and other dementia, and that’s huge.”

One problem is the costs associated with these treatments. As part of the advocacy team at the Alzheimer’s Association, Harris and her colleagues are leaning on the federal agency known as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to make it easier for people to access the medication.

In the meantime, she shares that significant risk factors for Alzheimer’s include age, family history and previous head injuries, and encourages those at risk to take part in any type of educational class that will stimulate the brain, do activities like brain teasers and to take care of themselves physically. For those who suspect a loved one of developing the disease, there are a number of warning signs to look for, including memory loss that disrupts their daily life, difficulty completing familiar tasks, changes in mood or personality, and confusion with time or place.

The local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association will be holding its annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s event on Oct. 7 at Lake Eola, and has a helpline that people can call 24/7 at (800) 272-3900.

“There is always someone there to answer the phone if you need to find a doctor, if you just have a random question or you just need to cry to somebody because you’re stressed out,” Harris says. “They’re there for you and if they don’t know the answer to your question, they will find it for you. That’s one of the most important things we offer: care and support.”