Pediatric DentistGetting kids to take care of their teeth and visit the dentist can be a problem. If you’re the parent of a youngster with special needs, the challenge may at times seem insurmountable.

However, it’s crucial to steer your child toward good oral hygiene habits and get them accustomed to regular dental check-ups and preventive therapy.

Developmental issues that make everyday dental care problematic can be caused by conditions such as:

  • Cerebral palsy.
  • Down syndrome.
  • Autism.
  • Spinal cord injury.
  • Muscular dystrophy.
  • Depression.
  • Seizures.
  • Visual and hearing impairments.

Balancing the multiple requirements of a child with special needs can be difficult, and pressing medical issues may take priority over dental care.

It’s estimated that youngsters with special needs are nearly twice as likely to have dental issues that remain untreated. So, as a parent of a child with special needs, it's imperative to pay particular attention to their dental healthcare.

Dental Problems Faced by Children with Special Needs

Youngsters with special needs face particular dental issues, including:

Tooth eruption irregularities. The emergence of teeth depends on several factors, including genetics and development of the jaw. If your child is affected by growth disturbances, the emergence of their teeth may be accelerated, delayed or inconsistent. In youngsters with Down syndrome, tooth eruption may be delayed by up to two years.

Teeth anomalies. Irregularities in the number, size or shape of teeth can affect children with conditions such as Down syndrome.

Medication issues. Medications for children with special needs may pose a risk of tooth decay because they contain sugar or cause dry mouth. Some medications can also cause gum overgrowth.

A special needs youngster may also be at greater risk of:

Malocclusion. A poor fit between the upper and lower teeth (malocclusion) often occurs in youngsters with developmental disabilities. Muscle dysfunction contributes to malocclusion, particularly in children with cerebral palsy.

Bruxism. The problem of habitual grinding of teeth is common in youngsters with cerebral palsy or those with a severe intellectual disability.

Cavities and gum disease. Tooth decay and gum infections can result from a child's weakened immune system or connective tissue disorders.

To help parents cope with various dental problems like the above, we’ve put together some dental care tips for children with special needs, covering at-home oral healthcare and overcoming difficulties in getting your youngster to accept professional treatment.

At-Home Dental Care Tips for Children with Special Needs

The earlier you introduce your child to the concept of oral hygiene, the easier it will be for them to make it a part of their daily routine, helping to keep their teeth strong and healthy.

You can begin the dental hygiene process before your child gets their first tooth. Wipe your baby’s gums with a wet gauze pad. When teeth begin to emerge, brush them at least twice a day with a soft toothbrush, and floss daily. Ask your pediatric dentist about fluoride toothpaste and how much to use.

Being patient with your youngster is particularly important if they have sensory problems, which are prevalent in autistic children. A step-by-step approach to oral hygiene will be less stressful for both of you.

Start by gently touching your child’s cheek with a toothbrush, gradually moving on to the lips, and finally the actual brushing, when you think your youngster is ready. Even if you can’t brush your child’s teeth perfectly, some brushing is better than none.

Dexterity can be a problem for children with special needs. As your youngster gets older, an electric toothbrush may be easier for them to maneuver than a manual brush. Your child may also regard an electric brush as a fun novelty, which will encourage them to clean their teeth.

Giving your child nutritious meals and limiting starchy or sugary foods will help to keep their baby teeth free from decay and do their job in paving the way for the adult teeth.

Professional Dental Care for Children with Special Needs

The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry1 (AAPD) says many dentists don’t offer treatment for children with special needs, so it may be difficult for parents to find the best dental care.

It’s important to find a dentist for your child who is experienced in dealing with children who have special needs and who will work with you and your youngster to safeguard their dental wellbeing without compromising their emotional health.

The AAPD says pediatric dentists are the dental professionals of choice for youngsters with special needs. After dental school, pediatric dentists undergo a further two to three years of specialized training, which includes child psychology and development.

The AAPD recommends that children should first visit a dentist by the age of 12 months or within six months of their first tooth appearing. This is particularly important for youngsters with special needs.

Sedation Dentistry for Children with Special Needs

Sedation dentistry2 can provide a safe and effective way for young patients with special needs to get the professional treatment they need.

Depending on the condition causing your child to have special needs, sedation options may include:

Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) mixed with oxygen, which relaxes patients within minutes.

Oral conscious sedation, which suppresses activity in the brain responsible for fear.

Thanks to the amnesiac nature of sedation medication, your youngster will have little or no recollection of their treatment, and this can reduce apprehension about subsequent dental appointments.

Avoiding Potential Dental Problems

Early visits to your pediatric dentist enable them to evaluate your child's dental development and help you to create the most appropriate oral care routine at home. Working with you and your child, the dentist can draw up a prevention plan that can avoid many potential problems.

An experienced pediatric special needs dental practice3 will strive to put your child at ease and the office will be especially child-friendly. The best pediatric dentists use advanced technology to provide the safest, gentlest treatment for children with special needs, and they will have a strong focus on preventive care.