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Helping Kids Who Are Anxious About The Dentist

When one thinks of a scary health care setting or experience, they often only think of the hospital or a doctor’s office. Dentistry is not always what comes to mind, even though the health of one’s mouth mirrors the whole body! Good oral hygiene is so important and plays a significant role in the prevention and detection of disease.(3) For many children, going to the dentist can create anxiety and fear reactions and is one of the most common reasons for dental care avoidance and/or neglect. Research has been conducted to find effective ways to decrease anxiety and fear for dental care in children. The findings of this research are incredibly important as fear and anxiety may lead to noncompliance, which ten leads to poor dental hygiene and oral health which can contribute negatively to the health of a child’s entire body.

Child life specialists can minimize the negative effects of dental fear in children, and thus, decrease dental avoidance. A study was conducted with 30 uncooperative 4–8-year-old children undergoing an invasive restorative dental appointment with no prior negative invasive dental experiences. The group of children who received two 30 minute sessions with a child life specialist prior to the appointment, versus the group of children who received no child life services, demonstrated less fear and better overall behavior and compliance.(4) Furthermore, child life specialist intervention was found to be as effective in improving behavior as oral conscious sedation in one study involving 17 fearful children who have had prior negative dental experiences. (3) Multiple studies have been done to assess the effectiveness of audiovisual distraction and its ability to facilitate a more positive experience for a child who may often need sedation for X-rays, teeth cleaning, or an extraction. These studies found that audiovisual distraction (AVD) was the most effective behavioral guidance tool in reducing anxiety! Child life specialists have expertise in assessing how to utilize various forms of AVD to ensure they are being used appropriately and efficiently to increase their benefits. (5,6)

When taking into account both the importance of pediatric dental hygiene and what research shows us about how a child’s dental experience can be improved and supported, it is apparent that utilizing child life services is a very important investment in your child’s health. Dental hygiene plays a crucial role in the health of an individual’s body, and mental health and resilience also play a critical role. By decreasing anxiety and fear during a dental health experience and increasing the possibility of a positive experience, child life specialists can play a role in promoting dental and mental health to further support a child’s overall well-being!

Here is a list of just a few things a child life specialist can do to support your child before, during, or after a dental health experience:

  • Facilitate pain management and distraction during a dental exam or procedure.

  • Develop effective coping strategies to decrease fear and anxiety.

  • Provide developmentally appropriate preparation and education.

  • Increase motivation and compliance to participate in oral care through individualized incentive support.

  • Therapeutically process past dental trauma and fear through medical play or other developmentally appropriate techniques.

If your child is fearful of going to the dentist and needs some extra support prior to their next appointment, we're here to help!


1. BHAUMIK, Abishek. (2015, December). The evaluation of child life as a safer alternative to pharmacological behavior management for children with objective dental fear. Retrieved from;sequence=1

2. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). AAPD. Retrieved from

3. Healthy Smile, Healthy You: The importance of oral health. Healthy smile, healthy you: The importance of oral health - Delta Dental. (2016). Retrieved from

4. Hinze, T., McDonald, C., Kerins, C., McWhorter, AG. (2020, July). Child life interventions for pediatric dental patients: A pilot study. Pediatric dentistry. Retrieved from

5. Khandelwal, D., Kalra , N., Tyagi , R., & Gupta, K. (2018, September). Control of anxiety in pediatric patients using "Tell show do"