Dental care can be a challenge for parents of kids with special needs. Children with cerebral palsy, autism, and Down syndrome are also at a higher risk of having issues with tooth decay, dental pain, and dental misalignment.
If you’re the parent or caregiver of a child with special needs, make dental hygiene an everyday, familiar part of your child’s life. The following four tips will set you and your child on the path to good oral health.
- Establish Positive Oral Hygiene Habits in Infancy
Children look to adults for validation of what’s normal and what’s not. When you establish oral care routines starting on the day your baby comes home from the hospital, your child becomes accustomed to the routine of having the mouth cleaned twice a day.
You don’t need a toothbrush to start a baby off on a lifetime of responsible dental hygiene. A clean, soft washcloth is all you need. Don’t use washcloths tumbled dry with dryer sheets or laundered with scented detergents, as the perfume-tainted cloth may make your baby gag.
Dampen the cloth and poke your finger against a section of the edge. Use your washcloth-covered finger to gently rub along your baby’s top and bottom gums. Lightly swab the mouth without going so deep that you make the baby gag.
If you clean your infant’s teeth twice a day using this technique, your baby will learn that oral care is a familiar part of daily life. Continue twice-daily tooth and gum care after baby teeth erupt.
- Be Gentle But Firm With Older Kids
Older children with special needs can develop bad dental habits if hygiene is not established and enforced in early childhood. Exhausted parents and teachers give up on demanding proper dental care to avoid fights, tantrums, biting, and other negative behaviors.
However, you can start over with an older child who refuses to brush. First, slowly introduce dentist-themed media including books, videos, games, and toys. If your child with special needs loves a certain cartoon or gaming character, search for a book or video that features the beloved character talking about dental health.
When possible, ask older children about their fears and experiences with dental care. Assure them that you’ll be gentle. In some cases, kids with special needs will continue to cry and fuss over dental hygiene routines. That’s okay. Go through the routines anyway.
It’s better to hear a few minutes of lamentation each day than to listen to days of inconsolable sobbing because your child’s tooth has become abscessed and unspeakably painful. Never perform dental care in anger, but do insist that the daily dental routine is performed at least once or twice a day.
Use rewards and other positive reinforcements to achieve consistent tooth care with older kids. Praise children with special needs for their bright smiles and cavity-free teeth. Over time, older children can become as accustomed to dental care as babies.
- Work Together to Find Tolerable Positions for Dental Care
Non-communicative children may have fears from past dental experiences. A child may experience a very strong gag reflex, a hyper-ticklish palate, or the sensation of choking during dental procedures. Ask your dental staff for recommendations on how to best provide dental hygiene for your child.
Work with non-communicative and older children to find tooth-care positions that are comfortable for you and the child. In some cases, children tolerate toothbrushing and other care while lying down. Provide a basin for a mobile child so they can easily turn their head and spit out excess fluids in the mouth.
Some children with special needs do well with their heads cradled in their caregiver’s arms. A child who has tremors or spastic movements appreciates the support to keep their head immobilized while you brush and floss for them. Some kids tolerate toothbrushing while in their slightly back-tilted wheelchairs.
Have suction available if necessary for excess saliva. Have clean towels on hand during dental care to wipe the child’s face, neck, and chair.
- Communicate With Dental Staff
Whenever possible, schedule dental visits for your child with a dental office that has undergone additional training to work with people with special needs. Dental offices that provide services to kids with special needs are ADA compliant, so wheelchairs and oxygen tanks are manageable.
Tell the staff about:
- Cognitive ability of child
- Speaking ability of child
- Strong gag reflex
- Persistent vomiting
- All medications child is taking
- All past medical procedures
- Birth defects, including cleft palate
You should also share details about your child’s past dental history and diet. The more your dentist knows, the more he or she can help your child have healthy, pain-free teeth.
Your child with special needs may be a good candidate for tooth-protecting treatments, including dental sealants and fluoride rinses. Discuss your concerns with your dentist and the dental staff to learn more tips and recommendations for your child’s ongoing dental wellness.
Schedule a dental visit for a child with special needs by contacting Apollo Dental Center in Rochester, Minnesota. We believe that all children deserve healthy, pain-free teeth and compassionate dental care. Our staff is happy to provide dental services to children with special needs throughout Southeastern Minnesota.