Most kids will probably never relish going to the dentist. But these days, pediatric dentists are making the experience the best it can be under the circumstances.
A train made out of giant toothbrushes, dental floss and a tube of toothpaste greets kids at the door of Worman and Worman Dentistry for Children in St. Petersburg. While awaiting their fate, kids can climb in the train or watch television and play video games. Once they are back in the dreaded chair they can pick a movie to watch and listen to with wireless headphones.
At the offices of Levitt and Parastthong Dentistry for Children and Teenagers in St. Petersburg there are also plenty of video games, televisions over the dental chairs, a Lego table and a mirror with a talking tooth fairy who praises kids after their visit. In the waiting room there’s a two-story submarine with ladders, radar screens, switches and more built by a designer from Busch Gardens.
Compare all this to a general dentist’s office that might have a Sports Illustrated at best to occupy nervous kids. But beyond the bells and whistles, pediatric dentists say they and their staffs also have knowledge and chairside manners that appeal to kids more than what they’ll encounter with a general dentist.
“They come in our office and see the train, the TV, the video games and the kids kind of forget where they are,” said Sandy Worman, who shares the practice with her father, Michael Worman. “We have these magic wands that light up and twinkle. We ask them to wave their magic wands and they are so busy looking at the colors they don’t notice I just gave them a (numbing) shot.”
Recently, when Worman had to make a mold of a 3-year-old’s mouth she distracted the girl by having her point her toes, then lift one leg, then the other leg, then point and lift. The child was so focused on the game she never whined about all the yucky goop in her mouth.
“Pediatric dentists have two additional years of formal training,” said Myles Levitt. “In dental school, you just take two weeks your third year and three or four weeks your fourth year on working with children. When you graduate as a general dentist, can you still drill a tooth on a kid and know how to work on a kid? Yes. But we have a lot more training and our offices across the board are just set up for kids.”
And the people who work in a pediatric dental office go into it because they like being around children. Even nervous children.
“My assistants love kids. They know how to talk about school, camp, sports and trips. By the time I sit down to pull a tooth or drill a tooth, he’s relaxed,” Levitt said. “A general dentist may have one kid on his whole (daily) schedule. I see 40 to 60 a day.”
Pediatric dentists know kid-friendly terminology. Instead of a shot of Novocain and a filling, at Levitt’s office kids get a “pinch” then some “sleepy juice” and a “white star” in their tooth.
But there’s still one thing many parents and kids don’t like about most pediatric dental offices. Parents usually cannot accompany their child when they go back to the dental chair.
It’s pretty hard not to get a knot in your stomach when you send your 3-year-old off alone to face the drill, X-rays, “sleepy juice” and a room full of strange adults and kids. But dentists say kids behave better when their parents aren’t there offering a shoulder to cry on. Or scream on. They listen to directions better when Mom isn’t hovering over them.
“That’s probably the biggest source of aggravation (for parents),” Worman said. But sometimes parents can even make it worse, she added. “They say things like ‘Here comes the bee sting’ (before the numbing shot). Then the child is thinking: ‘I’m going to get stung by a bee.’ Who wants to get stung by a bee?”
Worman said she has worked on children who are perfectly relaxed and happy. Then, after it’s all over and they go out to their parents, they burst into tears. This is proof that parents can bring out the water works.
But Robin Lesser disagrees. At the practice she shares with Frank Sierra in north Tampa, parents can come back and sit next to their child during the whole visit. “I think children are better when their parents are there because they are more relaxed,” Lesser said.
If the kids do act up or are really terrified, she’s glad the parents are right there to address the behavior. Or they can see for themselves why the child might need to have dental work done in an operating room under general anesthesia. Lesser has several patients who drive from other counties so they can go back to the chair with their child.
“I like the idea of being able to be back there with my child. I can reinforce the things they learn, brushing or flossing,” said Ricki Frayman, who brings her 5- and 7-year-old daughters from Safety Harbor to see Lesser. “And so I know what’s going on with my daughters. One of them has a little more of an issue with separation, so it works a lot better.”
Frayman also likes her daughters seeing a female professional as a role model. “There are days when they say: ‘I’m going to be Dr. Robin when I grow up.’ “
Levitt, Worman and most dentists will make exceptions to their “no-parents” rule in certain cases. Levitt’s practice sets aside days to see only children with special needs and their parents all come back to the chairs with them.
Children who come to Worman’s office for a first visit before they are 3 can bring their parents back with them that time. Most kids start going to the dentist when they are 3 and go twice a year from then on.
“We deal with all different kinds of anxiety levels. It’s much easier to calm down a 3-year-old than a totally neurotic 12-year- old,” Worman said. She estimated two out of 20 kids a day will cry. Some children get so upset at the dentist’s office that they have to have their dental work done while under general anesthesia in an operating room. Pediatric dentists are trained to work there as well.
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