Toddler Management and Distraction Tactics

When I was studying dentistry, we had a subject where we were taught how to manage children in the dental surgery. It is ironic that I’m only remembering these tips now, but I’ve found them to be pretty useful not just for managing a child in a dental surgery but a child who is about to be made to do something he doesn’t want to do.

What we learned:

Most people don’t like having dental injections and children are no exception. So when we have to give on to a child, this is the general monologue that takes place:

“I’m going to give your tooth some sleepy juice to make it fall asleep.”

Sleepy juice, in case you haven’t figured out, is really the injection. To further distract the child from the sensation of injection, we ask them to do something like this:

“Sleepy juice runs down to your feet so I need you to lift your feet up so it stays in your mouth.”

When the child is busy thinking about keeping his feet up, he doesn’t notice what you’re doing inside his mouth and usually doesn’t feel the sensation of the needle.

It was interesting to note that this also works with adults – in a slightly different way, of course.  Here is an example of what happened with one of my patients one day:

I had to take a mould of his mouth so I could make him a new denture.  To make a mould, we mix up some impression material, put it into a tray shaped to fit the arch of the teeth and press the tray up around the teeth.  Sometimes the sensation of impression material at the back of the throat can make sensitive patients gag.  Up until then, I had never had that experience until I saw this man.

If you know anything about impression material, you will realise that you cannot remove it from the mouth until it has set.  The setting time usually depends on the material that you use.  The particular material I was using that day takes about 7 minutes to set.  My patient started gagging about two minutes into the setting time and it quickly became evident that he would not be able to hold until the entire 7 minutes was up.

I don’t know what prompted me to say it, but I quickly told him to lift up his right foot.  For a moment he stared at me incredulously not knowing what to make of it, but he obeyed.  As soon as his right foot was up, I told him to lift his left foot.  Amazingly, he stopped gagging and we were able to keep the tray in his mouth until the impression material had set.

Conclusion: Distraction is a very powerful tool if you know how to use it right.

Despite knowing this for the last ten years, it only recently clicked in my head how the distraction tactic works with my son.  Duh…

Here’s one example:

Gavin doesn’t like getting his hair dried.  He fusses whenever we try to towel-dry his hair and starts screaming if we keep at it when he’s already told us to stop.  Previously, when we kept his hair short, it was simply a matter of a quick swipe of his head and it was done.  Now that he has longer hair, towel-drying takes a little more work.

I’ve noticed that whenever I talk to him or give him something absorbing to do, he never fusses when I dry his hair.  But if I try to tackle his head in silence and when he hasn’t something to distract him, all hell breaks loose.  But here’s the trick, you have to begin the distraction before touching his head, and not after you’ve started drying his head.

What works as a distraction?

  • getting him to brush his teeth
  • getting him to dry his trains
  • talking to him about Thomas and Friends
  • talking to him about anything that engages his mind

Obviously the distraction will vary from child to child depending on what interests that child and the developmental age of the child.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

3 thoughts on “Toddler Management and Distraction Tactics

  1. Hi! love the manner you started this topic using the dental experience……

    Changing a baby’s diaper is tough if he is fretful. I dangle my something interesting from my mouth and shake my head to attract his attention and make him concentrate at the item, like a necklace or other accesories. The scene can be ridiculous but effective. It’s nice to see that you Gavin loves painting, did he start just after one and a half or recently?


  2. Thanks Yvonne – I used to distract him with objects when I had to change his diaper. I think I sort of got lazy as he grew older and it seemed like I was running out of “interesting” objects to distract him with. Now that he has more understanding, I’ve rediscovered the art of distraction. Perhaps I just needed to persist more when he was moving out of the interesting objects phase…

    Frank – you’re welcome!


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