It wasn’t that long ago that your child’s first tooth started peeking out of the gumline. Now it’s time for that ritual of childhood known as the first visit to the dentist. Your kid might be nervous, but probably not as nervous as you. After all, you’ve been going to the dentist for a few decades now, and it’s easy to think that your child has no idea what he’s in for. But while going to the dentist is probably never going to be an occasion for celebration, it doesn’t have to be miserable either.

The first step is figuring out the right age to schedule that initial appointment. There’s not quite as much consensus as you might think about this topic, actually. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says that you should go when the child’s first tooth appears, or no later than the first birthday. Many dentists, however, believe it’s fine to wait until the second or even third birthday. So if your child is three-and-half and hasn’t been to the dentist yet, they’re running a little behind and it’s time to schedule an appointment with a child-friendly dentist.

            A dentist with experience in children’s dentistry will know exactly how to put your little one at ease and make them feel comfortable with climbing into the dental chair. Many offices have toys or stuffed animals to help children feel better about their environment. No good dentist is going to introduce themselves and then immediately tell your kid to open wide. They’ll work to gain your child’s trust before they start the examination. They’ll check for decay in the teeth and gums, as well as look for the permanent teeth hiding under the gums. They may also clean the teeth and apply a fluoride that’s safe for children. And barring any unexpected concerns or conditions, that’s it! You’ll be told to return in six months or so, and then you can praise your kid for their bravery, ideally by taking them out for ice cream (the dentist may tell you to avoid giving them too much sugar, but a special occasion calls for a special treat).

            Which brings us to you, the parent. You’ve probably been told that a big part of parenting is leading by example, and that’s especially true when it comes to dental visits and trips to the doctor. If you treat doctors and dentists as scary places that must be avoided at all costs, that’s probably going to rub off on your child. If you’ve been ignoring those nice little postcards reminding you that it’s time to schedule a check-up, then there’s not time like the present to fix it. Call your local dentist and make an appointment for yourself. Dentists are used to seeing patients who have gone eight months, ten months, even a year or more between visits. That doesn’t mean they like it, but they’ll probably still like you just fine, especially if you commit to getting back on a normal schedule of twice-yearly visits. On the first visit back, there will probably be more of that nasty plaque to scrape off, or possibly even a cavity or two that needs filling, but you can’t fix those issues by staying at home. The first visit is probably going to be the toughest, but after that, each subsequent trip to the dental chair should be a little easier. And after it’s all over and your teeth are clean and pristine, you can treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Hey, you deserve it for facing up to your fears and taking action. Just don’t be surprised if your child wants to tag along with you, because ice cream is best when you share it with the family.