My Story: How We Failed to Look after Our Toddler’s Teeth

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“He needs a root canal,” the hair-netted pedodontist pronounced.

I blinked, reeling at the news.

Dentists. Who likes going to them? Very few people, I suspect, and certainly not me. Unfortunately I’ve always had bad teeth and gums, despite conscientious brushing and flossing, and so trips to the dentist with the inevitable pronouncements of bad news have been part and parcel of my life for as long as I can remember. I honestly can’t recall a single visit to the dentist which was merely cleaning with no cavities.

I remember when my dentist told me I needed a root canal. It terrified me, and it also brought me the second worst pain I’ve experienced (the winner is post-Caesarian) when she hit a particularly sensitive spot. The rest of it was weird rather than painful, and tedious, with the many visits associated with the process.

And now my 3-year-old was going to get one?

At the time, it didn’t even occur to me to ask about getting an extraction instead, rather than make Alex go through that experience. Later on when I spoke to dentist friends, they said that was to ensure the gap remained for Alex’s eventual permanent tooth since it would be a number of years before it appeared.

So anyway, here we were, and I had to make a decision. Root canal today or root canal some other time? The dentist weighed the pros and cons. We had come to her because Alex had cried out when something he ate hit a nerve, so an obvious advantage would be to rid him of the pain. However, this was his second visit to the dentist. The first, a week before, had involved cleaning and fluoride treatment. He was most upset about the x-ray treatment and weird gumminess of the applicator of the fluoride and needed some calming, but it was pretty quick overall. Would he be able to handle the intensity of an hour-long procedure and still be willing to come back to the dentist?

In the end I decided to go ahead with it. After struggling to keep him still during the numbing injection, the dentist said Alex needed to be restrained for his own protection. He was placed on a surfboard and wrapped in a soft cocoon, his wrists velcroed down. There were three nurses at the ready to hand implements, hold the suction and assist the dentist with holding Alex’s head down. I hovered over him with YouTube videos of toys being unboxed, which I didn’t allow him to watch normally, but which now captured his attention. There was a clock on the wall, and the hands moved in slow motion.

From a non-parental point of view, it was interesting to watch what goes into a root canal. But every time Alex cried, and to his credit this lasted about 10 seconds each time something new or unexpected happened, my heart got wrung a little harder, and I cursed myself for being so careless and negligent. Why had we not started with fluoride toothpaste earlier? (Because he wasn’t very good at spitting and I was worried about him swallowing the toothpaste) Why had we not brushed his teeth after every meal and snack? (Because that seemed tedious and we were lazy) Why had we fed him so much fruit, with all that sugar? (Because he didn’t like vegetables and this is how we got fibre in him during that period when he was so constipated) Why hadn’t we flossed his teeth? (Are you kidding? Flossing at 3 years old?!) Why oh why had I not realised that he would probably inherit my lousy teeth? (Because I was naive and stupid)

I couldn’t believe that we had put our innocent, blameless son through this. It was unforgivable.

Finally, mercifully, it was over. Alex was sprung from the papoose and wrapped his sweaty body around me fiercely as the dentist talked me through the next steps and gave him a little toy. I paid the hefty bill and we walked out into the evening to a shopping mall for his promised gift. Alex, by all appearances, looked as if he hadn’t just been strait-jacketed and prodded at with sixty four metal instruments and pieces of gauze for an hour. I was shell-shocked, and had never felt like such a failure as a parent, not even during the dark days of endless constipation.

So now we have some new routines. Brushing, rinsing spitting, every time he eats or drinks and before his nap. Flossing at night. Fluoride tablets. A stream of dental appointments in the next few months to fill his numerous cavities. A lot of new presents and YouTube videos coming his way by way of bribery/reward/assuaging of parental guilt. No more long weekends in resorts thanks to our new financial constraints. And yet another chapter to add to Parenting 101.

Uma is a Malaysian working mum with a French husband and a toddler named Alex living in their fourth country together.

Image Credit: Family Dentist Reviews.

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