Desensitization is defined as the “gradual exposure to new stimuli or experiences of increasing intensity.” In the dental setting desensitization is used to gradually expose the young dental patient to the new dental experience. The concept is best demonstrated by the following scenarios.

Scenario 1: A young child is taken to a beach. The parent picks up the child, wades into the ocean waters, and drops the child into the water. The cold, pounding waves shocks the child and results in a traumatized crying child.

Scenario 2: A young child is taken to the beach. The parents provide a pail and shovel to the child and sends him to play in the wet sand near the ocean. The child does so and after a few minutes of playing, decides to wash the wet sand from his hands in the ocean water. He walks into the water until it covers his toes, washes his hands, and returns to playing in the wet sand. A few minutes later the child returns to the water, but now wades in until the water is up to his knees, washes his hands, and returns to playing in the wet send. A few minutes later the child returns to the water but now wades in until the water is up to his waist, stays there a few moments, and then dives into the waves. In the second scenario the child was less traumatized by the ocean experience than in the first scenario because the child was allowed to slowly acclimate himself to the situation instead of being overwhelmed by the new experience.

In the dental setting we desensitize the child to the dental experience through a technique of “Tell, Show, Do.” The child is told and explained as to what is going to happen, shown by demonstration what is going to happen, and then the dentist or auxiliary does the intended procedure.

In the tell phase of the technique the choice of words used in explaining the procedure is important. Since the young child may have a limited vocabulary it is important to explain the procedure using words understandable at their level

Table 1 contains a glossary of commonly used dental terminology and substitutions that may be used with young children.

Table 1. Glossary of Substitute Dental Terminology.
Instead of: Use:
Explorer Tooth counter
X-ray or radiograph Tooth picture/camera
Hurt Bother
Air syringe Wind, wind gun
Shot/ injection Sleepy juice, put tooth to sleep
Low speed handpiece Mr. Bumpy
High speed handpiece Mr. Whistle
Prophy angle Tooth tickler, tickle toothbrush
Fluoride/fluoride varnish Tooth vitamins
Alginate Tooth print, pudding, Jell-O mold
Impression Statue
Extract Wiggle
Rubber dam Raincoat
Filling Star
Stainless Steel Crown Silver hat
Acid etch or Sealant Tooth paint
Slow speed suction Mr. Thirsty
High speed suction Vacuum cleaner