CONVERSATIONS WITH… A Paediatric Dentist

Dr Tabitha Chng takes great pains to ensure that junior has a pleasant experience when he’s in her dental chair…

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You could say that encouraging good oral health in kids is part of Dr Tabitha Chng’s DNA. The passionate paediatric dentist, who has been practising for a decade (five years as a general dentist and five years specialising in kids), notes that the best thing about her job is, “making a kid break out into a smile or hearty chuckle”.

She says, “I love it when I get to see them brimming with joy ― I can’t explain why. Perhaps it is because the joy that overflows from children is so sincere and unbridled, it is infectious.”

Dr Chng, who is in her 30s and a mother of a boy aged 2, starts her working day at 8am by spending an hour looking into the latest dental developments. The rest of her work day is spent looking into the dental needs of her young patients ― from as young as 5 days old to 18-year-olds. Why is a tooth doctor seeing infants who only have gummy grins to show, you may ask? That’s because she’s seeing a small, but increasing number of parents seeking her advice on lip and tongue ties in their infants, which can impact breastfeeding.

“They [Parents] are wisely seeking professional guidance early, learning to nip bad habits in the bud before these bad habits destroy their child’s teeth and smile at a tender age.”

Another trend she’s noticed ― an increase in dental cavities amongst our fast-food generation. It’s worrying, but Dr Chng feels reassured by the significant rise in parents who bring their kids by age 1 ― the recommended timeframe for a child’s first dental visit ― to see her. She reckons that it’s a sign that they recognise the importance of early dental care. “Rather than wait till dental problems or pain arise, they are wisely seeking professional guidance early, learning to nip bad habits in the bud before these bad habits destroy their child’s teeth and smile at a tender age,” she adds.

Dr Chng, why do kids tend to dread visiting the dentist?
That everyone is afraid of dentists or dentists are scary are misconceptions often caused because parents delay their child’s first visit to the dentist. The first dental visit should be before age 1. Looking at the escalating rates of dental disease in children in Singapore, this delay may result in an accumulation of dental problems by the time they make that first visit ― and what could have been a pleasant experience is now challenged because of the presenting dental problems.

Read on for sure-fire ways to ensure junior has a tear-free dental visit…

How do you help to ease your little patients’ fears?
What I do depends on the situation as every child is different. A lot is happening in my head – I am assessing the reason for the fears and lack of cooperation, taking into account the child’s age, personality and trying to establish communication.

For instance, a regular attendee at my clinic who had always been very cooperative started acting out and lacked her usual level of enthusiasm. I stopped what I was doing to talk to her to find out what was bothering her, only to find out that she was upset that her parents had pulled her out of a school excursion to come for the dental visit. She really wanted to go! I empathised with her, we talked about it and then she was back to her usual cooperative self!

How do you handle special-needs kids?
Talking to the parents to understand the child better helps me to formulate my approach but interacting with the child himself and reading his body language is crucial. It’s almost like a slow dance I am taking with the child. I cannot just keep making advances, we must move slowly but together at his pace.

My goal for the first visit is mainly to establish trust because once established, they will feel more relaxed and much more can be achieved thereafter. I have been working with this one child with autism for the past two years. Although at his first visit, he went nowhere near the dental chair, at his recent visit, he came up to me, held my hand, and led us to the dental chair and we managed to polish his teeth. That was a big victory leap for him!

I have had parents take the initiative to print out my photo to show their child in the days leading up to the appointment, so that I am less of a stranger when they see me.

How can parents help to make your job easier?
Visiting a dentist is very unfamiliar to children. When parents contact me before their first visit, I would give them certain tasks to work on at home to build their confidence on familiar tasks that may be done at the dental visit, such as practising opening the mouth for a set duration. I have had parents take the initiative to print out my photo to show their child in the days leading up to the appointment, so that I am less of a stranger when they see me.

Showing kids visuals of what they should expect can also be helpful. Prep them by reading a book about going to a dentist or finding related cartoons or videos. Simple statements like, “The dentist will count your teeth and make sure they are healthy” or “It really helps the dentist when you open your mouth wide” prime them for the behaviour desired.

You can also bring them along for your own dental visit, reinforcing that, “See, mummy and daddy do this, too!” Let them bring along a favourite toy or their toothbrush to show the dentist how they brush their teeth at home. They can even pick out their outfit for the day!

Knowing what not to do is important as well. Though well intentioned, it is wise to refrain from using the dentist as a threat. Don’t say things like, “If you do not cooperate, the dentist will …”. This often backfires. For a good dental visit, it is also important that parents select a dentist who is good with children.

Do you have an unforgettable anecdote about a young patient to share?
A mum recounted to me that her child had become so diligent about taking care of her teeth after visiting me that she will often say, “It’s time to brush teeth” once she had finished her milk. Once, the mum had forgotten to brush her child’s teeth after her milk and was about to put her child to bed when her daughter went, “Hey mum, you forgot to brush my teeth. My dentist will not be happy!”

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Main photo: iStock

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