Most early memories of the dentist are tinged with fear, pain and novocaine, so it comes as no surprise that as many as 20% of Americans avoid going except when it's an emergency.
Dealing with the fear early on is instrumental because it establishes good practices from a young age. And because February is National Children's Dental Health Month, there's no better time to address kids' dental terror.
"For kids, the greatest fear ... is the fear of the unknown," said Dr. Steven Goldberg, a dentist and graduate of New York University's College of Dentistry. "As adults we kind of lie back and accept what's being done, but children want to know what's going on."
Goldberg said one way parents can dispel fears is by not sharing their own bad experiences - especially when it comes to pain. And while parents might have had traumatic teeth-cleanings in the past, today's advanced numbing techniques, like Goldberg's own DentalVibe, make visits relatively painless.
"There aren't screaming people in the chair anymore," Goldberg said.
When Beth Schachinger, of Malverne, N.Y., was a kid, a dentist said her "tiny cavity" didn't call for any novocaine.
"We'll just drill it," she recalled him saying.
"That was it - I got such a shock of pain that ever since I was terrified," said Schachinger, 40. "It'd be so bad that I would have nightmares about going. I'd make the appointment, change the appointment and it kept going and I would have dental issues."
Schachinger's current dentist is more sensitive, she said, and Goldberg explained more dentists take pains to avoid similar experiences, especially for impressionable children.
Trips to the dentist should begin when a child's first tooth appears, said Goldberg, and adults should visit twice a year to promote overall health. Good dental hygiene decreases risk of infection and other ailments, Goldberg said.
In fact, people who had their teeth cleaned twice or more over a two-year period had a 24% lower risk of heart disease and 13% lower risk of stroke, according to a 2011 report by the American Heart Association.
"A lot of people don't understand that their mouth is connected to the rest of their body - they're all the same system," said Goldberg.
Tips to Alleviate Kids' Fear of the Dentist
--Explain to your child what to expect.
--Read them a children's book about the dentist before their visit.
--Talk to them about your own positive experiences.
--Bring them for a visit to the dentist before your scheduled appointment.
--Call your dentist so you can fill out forms beforehand.
--Explain how portrays of the dentist on TV and in movies aren't the reality.
--Start bringing your child to the dentist when their first tooth comes in.
--Brush your child's teeth with a mechanical toothbrush yourself.