Combatting childhood dental fear

17 March 2021
2 min read

Giving every child the best possible start to a lifetime of good oral health is the BDPD’s overarching mission. But one of the many challenges they face is dental anxiety, a reality for many children, who may require special measures to help them cope with having a dental appointment as well as treatment. Children with dental anxiety are frequently referred to specialist services in hospital or clinics for a general anaesthetic which has additional challenges and risks.

To help anxious children cope with their dental appointment or treatment, the BSPD recommends a resource developed by the University of Sheffield School of Clinical Dentistry. Entitled ‘It’s your teeth, you are in control’, the resource is underpinned by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Now, working with other dental schools, Sheffield is undertaking a £1.6m trial funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to investigate the approach. The study will involve 600 children aged nine to 16, and will examine whether CBT helps them manage their dental treatment at their family dental practice.

The principal investigator, Professor Zoe Marshman from the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry and honorary consultant in dental public health at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, said, “Traditionally, children with dental anxiety have been referred by high street dentists to specialist services for sedation or general anaesthetic. This approach does nothing to stop their fear, and they may go on to spend a lifetime avoiding the dentist.”

The study will involve children from 30 dental practices and clinics across England and Wales. Working together, dental professionals, children and their parents will set out to understand what specifically is making the child anxious; they will be given information and choices about the procedures they may need, activities to help them cope, and support with talking to the dentist.

Professor Marshman added, “There is strong evidence to support the use of CBT, a talking therapy, for anxiety and mental health conditions; however, there is currently very limited research into CBT delivered specifically by dental professionals for children with dental anxiety.

“If our study finds CBT resources delivered by dental professionals are effective, then children can be helped directly in high street dental practices without the need to travel for dental treatment in hospitals.” 

Claire Stevens, spokesperson for the BSPD commented, “Any approach which helps children get the care they need in their local dental practice is to be welcomed. We would like to see evidence that empowering children to voice their anxieties and talk to their dentist helps build a long and trusting relationship that allows them to receive their care closer to home.”