Visiting the dentist can be fun for kids — really

Anxious about going to the dentist? Don’t fret, you’re not alone. Nearly 75 percent of people feel your pain.

Tips from the pros:

  • Clean your infant’s gums with a clean, damp cloth twice a
  • Ask your dentist when you may begin to rub a tiny dab of
    toothpaste on your child’s gums. Doing so will help your child
    become accustomed to the flavor of toothpaste.
  • As soon as the first teeth come in, begin brushing them with a
    small, soft-bristled toothbrush and a pea-sized dab of fluoride
  • Help a young child brush at night, which is the most important
    time to brush, due to lower salivary flow during sleep and higher
    susceptibility to cavities and plaque.
  • By approximately age 5, your child can learn to brush his or
    her teeth with proper parental instruction and supervision.

SOURCE: Academy of General Dentistry

That includes Grace Yum, who admits she sweats when she goes to the dentist. (Shhh, don’t tell, because she’s a dentist.)

Yum and other Chicago area pediatric dentists are on a mission to erase the fear for this generation of kids. In Yum’s case, she makes every child’s visit to her office, Yummy Dental in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, an adventure that begins with a boarding pass to Hawaii or Disney and ends with a goody bag filled to the brim with things kids actually want and a photo of the ‘trip’ to show off to friends and family.

Fun is in. These days, most dentists’ offices are equipped with multiple staff, sophisticated Web sites, WiFi, Sony PlayStations and exam room movies.

It can make even the most hesitant patient eager to have his teeth checked-or not want to leave once the checkup is over.

“You are making a difference in a child’s life. I love, love, love when kids come back and say I want to be a dentist,” Yum says.

Help for first-time visitors

Dr. Fred Margolis, of Pediatric Dental Associates P.C. of Buffalo Grove, focuses on taking away the fear of the unknown. His Web site,, outlines everything kids can expect. They even can watch a video of an exam.

“We send a welcome package to each patient that contains a personalized, computerized book,” Margolis says. “Kids bring the book in when they visit, they get stickers and we sign the book.”

Margolis wants the first visit to be fun. “Our goal is to provide preventive dentistry so the child can go through life without tooth decay or a lot of dentistry.”

Dr. Nancy Hijjawi, of Pine Dental Care, tries to make new patients more comfortable by getting them involved.

“I always show the child what I’m going to do first on the palm of the hand or the fingernail,” Hijjawi says.

The Wizard of Teeth

Sometimes, pediatric dentistry isn’t about office visits at all. The staff at All Smiles Dental in Algonquin takes their dental show on the road. Literally.

Since 1992, Dr. Tim Stirneman has put on a play, “The Wizard of Teeth.” “The play is a take on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ where Dorothy and her friends have fears about going to the dentist. So they visit the Wizard of Teeth, who can answer questions about getting work done. And the wizard shows them how it’s not that bad to get your teeth cleaned.”

Stirneman and his crew see up to 3,500 students in one month at 15-18 schools.

“My favorite part of the show is the question-and-answer session we do with the kids when the show is over,” Stirneman says. “I try to work into the Q& A about not eating fruit rollups and gummy bears. We also talk about plaque being bug poop and that gets a big laugh as well. It’s all really rewarding.”

Entertainment for all ages

Nowadays, many pediatric dental waiting rooms offer high-tech and high-touch entertainment. This is a far cry from the stack of used books and old magazines from years ago. There’s also an emphasis on comfort-not just for the kids, but parents as well.

Yummy Dental offers a dedicated Netbook and free WiFi for parents while their child is seeing the dentist and watching their ‘in-flight’ movie. Plus all the paperwork is filled out at home, so parents just can enjoy the downtime.

“Parents often tell us they want to be patients,” Yum says.

Dr. Ned Savide, of Palos Heights, redesigned his office with parents in mind.

“We devoted a lot of space and time in our redesign to the waiting room,” Savide says. “We have things designed to make the experience of coming to the dentist fun.”

Savide supplied his waiting room with a quiet place for parents to sit, read or catch up on the latest television shows and even a small movie theater.

He also put a large saltwater fish tank in the middle of the treatment chair areas.

Hijjawi recently renovated her office. “We have a computer center in the waiting room where the kids can play games,” Hijjawi says.

A different dental vocabulary

A pediatric dentist chooses his or her words carefully. Nothing can scare a child away faster than the word “drill.” At Yummy Dental, the drill becomes “Mr. Tickle.”

“It’s all about technique and making sure their experience is very gentle and not surprising,” says Yum. Plus lots of smiles, jokes and laughing go a long way with kids.

Dr. Mary Tierney, of City Kids Dental in Chicago, has perfected this technique. She calls the scaler the “crumb scooper,” the dental explorer tool “a tooth counter” and the fluoride a “tooth vitamin.”

Savide also nicknames his dental equipment.

“No one uses the word ‘drill,'” Savide says. “Everything is labeled with a word the kids can understand. When we have to make a tooth numb, we put a topical anesthetic on it first that we call ‘cherry juice.’ The syringe we use to numb the tooth we call a ‘sleepy dropper.'”

But the real key to pediatric dentistry is being flexible.

“It’s all about making kids accepting of dental care,” Hajjawi says. “Taking that extra five minutes of time can change the whole outcome of the procedure.”

Tamara O’Shaughnessy contributed to this story.

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