Girl’s ‘dental phobic’ death prompts call for research

A children’s dentist has called for more aid for phobic youngsters in light of news that a girl starved herself to death, severely traumatised by a trip to the dentist.


Eight-year-old Sophie Waller, from Cornwall, developed pervasive refusal syndrome – a severe oral phobia – after a series of traumatic dental visits. But her deep psychological fear went unrecognised by health professionals, an inquest heard. 


The inquest coincided with a new study that concluded that a ‘sensory environment’ can ease a child’s fear of the dentist.

Dr Cheryl Butz, instrumental in setting up Toothbeary, a pilot children-only dental practice in south-west London, is now calling for a deeper investigation into ‘the complex area of children’s dentistry and prevention of dental phobias’ and suggests there should be more child-only practices.


She said: ‘This case is so, so tragic. We all feel very deeply about it at Toothbeary because providing the dentistry that avoids such suffering in children is “what we do”.

‘We carry the responsibility of providing a dental home for children, the youngest and most vulnerable of our patients. The simple fact that Sophie needed eight extractions at the tender age of eight, highlights the failure of all adults around her to timely and adequately support her oral health.’


The ‘sensory’ study from Israel – published in The Journal of Pediatrics – suggests that anxiety levels can be reduced in children ‘when the sensory environment of the dental surgery is changed’. Researchers observed 35 children (aged 6-11).


The first dental visit included the usual fluorescent lighting and overhead dental lamp. These were replaced on the second trip with a slow-moving repetitive colour lamp and a hygienist wearing an LED headlamp. The children listened to soothing music, were wrapped in a heavy ‘hugging’ vest and the chair produced a vibration. The anxiety levels decreased noticeably.


Dr Butz said: ‘This new study has highlighted the strong influence of sensory environment on anxiety and behaviour in children during medical interventions. It underscores the fact that the average dental environment is anxiety-generating for children.’


At the Toothbeary practice in Richmond, the 11 chairs are unrecognisable as treatment units, the handpieces and motors are hidden under the couch and a monitor on the ceiling shows age-appropriate DVDs.


Dr Butz maintains: ‘Specialised practices have the advantage of being able to adapt the practice interior and all dental procedures to the young and fearful child. Timely referral to such practices may help children like Sophie avoid psychological trauma.’


She concludes: ‘One can only hope for public and political support of children’s dentistry. More research, insight and therapies are needed in the complex area of children’s dentistry and prevention of dental phobias so that the necessary level of care can be provided for all children who need it.’

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