Key tips on attracting and retaining families to your practice.
Good habits instilled in childhood can reap dividends in later life , which is why it’s important for dentists to support children and their families. Becoming a family-friendly dental practice will help improve a child’s experience which, in turn, can lead the way to a longer lasting relationship with the whole family. 
Research shows that children who have positive interactions with their dentist are less likely to feel anxious in dental appointments when they are adults. 
Dental anxiety presents a genuine challenge and as many as 19.5% of school-age children are afraid of dentists.  A recent study by the European Dental Journal suggests that anxiety leaps when a child is between the ages of 8 and 12 years old, so it’s worth taking extra care of patients in this age bracket. 
Every One Matters
For many children, a fear of the unknown means the first stumbling block is often getting through the dental practice’s door. From the moment they walk into your practice, a young patient and their parents should feel relaxed, comfortable and at ease. Everyone from the receptionist to the dentist makes an impression, so it’s important every member of staff understands the important role they have to play. Rather than towering over children while introducing themselves, you could encourage your staff to kneel or sit when addressing a child.  Simply taking time to acknowledge a child can also help to reassure them they are welcome.
∙ Train your team so they know how to speak to young patients
∙ Make sure that the first person a child meets makes a good impression
∙ Ensure your team are committed to being a family-friendly practice
Build Relationships with Parents
If the parent is nervous or apprehensive about visiting the dentist, this anxiety will inadvertently be transmitted to the child, so take time to explain everything clearly to the patient first. If you want a parent to instill good dental hygiene at home, they need to know that you are on their side. The trust and confidence that builds between you, the child and his or her parents can last for years. 
∙ Take time to explain not just what children need to do, but why it’s important
∙ Make sure parents feel encouraged and supported
∙ Try not to criticize bad habits, but encourage positive change
Make Your Waiting Room Child Friendly
Your waiting room should be a reflection of your whole practice, so make the experience as positive as possible. In a recent survey, children were asked to choose between two pictures of different clinical settings, 63% of the children indicated that they preferred a decorated dental clinic over a plain clinic,  so think about how you can make your waiting area child friendly.
It’s relatively inexpensive to provide a few children’s books, toys, crayons and colouring books, or even an activity table with a few games and puzzles for young patients, just make sure you replenish stock and replace any broken or torn books.
If you have space, you could even add some bean bags or a television that can show fun programs about good dental care.
∙ Add books, games and colouring activities for children
∙ Make sure the seating is comfortable for children
∙ Use technology to reinforce and encourage good dental routines
Involve the Children
Just as you would with adults, you need to ensure that your younger patients are comfortable and relaxed, and that they know what is about to happen.  There can be a lot of technical words involved in dentistry, so use simple language to make sure young patients understand what you are talking about. 
Research suggests that children are most fearful of injections, tooth extraction and dental tools, so if instruments are needed, you could use a ‘show and tell’ strategy to put them at ease.  Positive reinforcement can really help anxious children, so keep chatting to them and encouraging them. Try not to criticise them. Instead, suggest ways in which the child can improve their oral health and really focus on the long term benefits that such changes will make.
∙ Talk directly to the child and involve them in their dental care
∙ Use simple language that children will understand
∙ Reinforce the benefits of changing or improving their dental habits
Technology Can Help
Children are more digitally savvy than ever and there is a whole range of online resources that can encourage good dental care. Within a practice, you can use cartoons or games on tablet to help engage children in their dental care. There are plenty of options on line, try online-dentist.co.uk, www.drrabitz.com or www.perfectteeth.com for some ideas.
Consider giving parents a list of dental apps  that can inspire better brushing at home too. You could even suggest they use devices such as Playbrush, which can be fitted to the end of a child’s toothbrush and linked to an app on a phone or tablet to encourage good brushing. Consider texting or emailing gentle reminders, to encourage parents to maintain good routines between visits - just make sure that you have gained permission to communicate with parents in this way.
∙ Give parents links to apps and dental websites to engage children about oral health at home
∙ Use tablets to help demonstrate good dental care techniques to children
∙ Encourage parents to keep up good routines between visits
Distraction and Reward
Distraction can be useful in reducing dental anxiety. Playing the radio, or mounting a television above the chair that shows a variety of family-friendly programmes can help take the child’s mind away from the procedure or check-up. Relaxation strategies can be useful for some children; try guiding them through a few deep breaths while sitting in the chair.
Ensure you applaud and even reward children for being brave during a dental appointment or procedure. Stickers are a staple in many dental practices, but you could consider starting a reward scheme by giving children a stamp every time they visit that can be exchanged for a prize when they have reached a certain target.
∙ Use music, TV or posters on the ceiling to distract children
∙ Encourage nervous patients to try breathing techniques
∙ Reward children for visiting the dentist and cleaning their teeth well
Getting Off to a Great Start
There are a whole range of techniques that you can use to make your young patients feel at home. From the welcome they receive at reception, a family-friendly interior, your chair-side manner, distraction and reward techniques, and, most importantly, communication with parents, each aspect is a team effort. By giving careful attention to each of these areas, you can make a positive lasting impression that could ensure a life time of great dental care.