Improving Dental Care for Children With Special Health Care Needs

Man holds baby boy with special needs.

Children with special health care needs need extra help to keep their teeth and gums healthy. With the right support it is possible for them to keep a healthy smile. That’s why it’s important for parents and caregivers to help with daily routines and make sure that going to the dentist regularly feels comfortable. Specifically, children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, seizure disorders, vision and/or hearing impairments and other cognitive and physical disabilities will benefit from additional support for their oral and overall health.

Higher risk for oral health issues

Unfortunately, children with special health care needs are at higher risk for oral health issues. Here are common issues to look out for:

  • Tooth decay, gum disease and missing teeth
  • Teeth that are not aligned
  • Teeth grinding anda clenching
  • Holding food in their mouth for too long
  • Breathing through the mouth
  • Pushing the tongue against the back of the teeth
  • Teeth appearing later in life can occur in children with Down syndrome (sometimes as late as two years old)
  • Mouth trauma and injury from falls or accidents are more frequent in people with seizure disorders or cerebral palsy

Why is there a higher risk?

There can be a variety of risk factors depending on a child’s special need, but some more common causes include:

  • Medications: Often medications have high sugar content. This can cause dry mouth that leads to a buildup of plaque and bacteria. Additionally, some medication can cause extra gum growth and an increase of bacteria.
  • Food pouching: Holding food in the mouth for too long without swallowing can cause extra sugar to stick to your child’s teeth. This makes cavities more likely to develop.
  • Challenges brushing and flossing: Physical disabilities may make a daily brushing and flossing more difficult, leading to poorer oral health.

Prepare for a successful dentist visit

A little extra planning can go a long way toward a successful visit to the dentist. You can start by finding an in-network pediatric dentist who has experience treating children with special health care needs.

Once you’ve found the right dentist, call the office to discuss how to make the visit go more smoothly:

  • Discuss anything the office can do to help make your child more physically comfortable, especially if the child has a hard time sitting in the dental chair.
  • Make the dentist aware of your child’s communication skills and anything the office can do to help them feel at ease.
  • Provide a list of any medications your child takes, as well as any dietary restrictions or latex allergies. This information can help the dentist decide the best way to provide treatment.

Then, on the day of the appointment, bring items with you that may help your child relax, such as a favorite toy or a portable music player.

Stick to an oral health routine at home

It’s important to brush twice a day for two minutes each time and to floss daily. Continue to help your child with their daily oral health care if they are having any issues.

If you see your child holding food in their mouth for too long, mouth breathing or other issues, encourage them to rinse their mouth out with water after meals and snacks.

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