The Smile Factor: How to Teach Your Special Needs Child Good Oral Hygiene

Posted On Friday, 11 May 2018
The Smile Factor: How to Teach Your Special Needs Child Good Oral Hygiene

Trying to get any child to lay off the candy and brush their teeth can be a challenge. Yet, for parents of children with special healthcare needs, it can be even more problematic as there are variables that put them at a higher risk for dental problems.

A child’s physical, mental and intellectual abilities will all factor in their ability to comprehend and practice proper oral hygiene. With some conditions, such as cerebral palsy and seizure disorders, there can be physical challenges facing the child attempting to brush or floss. Then, there are children with special needs who must adhere to a diet high in carbohydrates and sugars. Others require medications that can cause dry mouth and even gum overgrowth. It is common for many children with special needs to have missing teeth or extra teeth or even malformed teeth.

Dental care is the most common unmet need among children with special healthcare needs, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Cavities are bacterial based infections. If untreated, the infections can spread to other parts of the body that may already be compromised by a preexisting medical condition. It is extremely important that parents seek early professional dental care and instill good oral hygiene practices within the home.

Following are some time-tested strategies to help parents with the process.

Start Early

Like any good habit or routine, you want to introduce the importance of good oral hygiene early. Even before the first tooth, you should be cleansing the gums, tongue, palate and cheeks, on a daily basis. Milk and bacteria collect in the mouth and therefore wiping your child’s mouth with a small washcloth or using an infant toothbrush keeps the environment healthy, just like washing the baby’s face and hands.

As your child’s teeth start to come in, you’ll want to introduce him or her to the actual process of brushing, using just water or an infant ingestible toothpaste. Remember to avoid fluoridated toothpaste until the age of three when the child can effectively spit.

Make brushing in the morning and evening a part of your child’s daily routine. If your child has sensory issues, you may want to break down the process. You can start by touching your child’s cheek with the toothbrush, and then lips, before moving to actual brushing of the teeth and oral soft tissues. Try to pick a time in the morning and evening when it is comfortable for both you and our child.

Avoid Sugary Foods and Night Bottles

You, as a parent, have control over your young child’s foods. Many children with special needs have difficulty chewing, swallowing and clearing their mouths after eating. Consuming sticky candy, acidic soda and unhealthy snacks is made worse because these items stay in the mouth longer, harming the teeth. Often parents will use sweets to placate a whining child, award a child for good behavior or to avoid mealtime food battles, but for our children with medical complications this places them at a higher risk for dental disease.

It’s equally important that your bedtime routine doesn’t involve a bottle. The sugars in milk and juice can cause early childhood tooth decay. The last gulp of milk will not get swallowed right away as the child falls asleep. It sits in the mouth and breaks down, producing acid that causes cavities. These problems are preventable if we don’t place our infants and children at a higher risk for dental problems.

Make Brushing Fun

The aim is to make brushing seem less like a chore, and more like something fun and enjoyable. Try putting on your child’s favorite song or creating a game out of the process. There are a number of apps that can used to entertain and engage children in having fun while practicing good oral hygiene.

A proper sized toothbrush, not too big, with soft bristles is best. If your child has physical limitations that make it difficult to hold small things or maneuver around the mouth, consider attaching something to the handle that fits their hands better.

Most children require parental assistance in brushing up to the age of 8 or 9 years old. The attention span and manual dexterity is fairly good at that time, so effective brushing can be accomplished.

Our children with special needs might require parental assistance for many more years, so work with your dental professionals and physical and occupational therapists to guide you and your child in the learning process.

Find a Good Pediatric Dentist

It is recommended a child starts visiting a pediatric dentist on their first birthday, or when you see their first tooth coming into the mouth. Obtaining an early professional examination of your child’s mouth will help identify any oral health issues that might require intervention. The tongue and lips are very important in speech development and therefore assessing these structures, as well as the erupting teeth, is extremely beneficial.

When babies start to become more mobile and toddlers begin to walk there can be a lot of little mishaps that can involve the mouth. Having established a dental home with a pediatric dentist gives you comfort in having emergency services available when you need them.

For a child with sensory issues, the sight or feel of any doctors’ office can be difficult. Dental instruments, bright office lights and even certain noise can be frightening. It’s important the dentist has extensive experience treating children with special needs, including developmental disorders, physical disabilities, and special behavioral and emotional needs. Pediatric dentists are well-trained in all of these aspects of delivering oral care. The office should be “kid-friendly” with a calm and caring staff, ready to make the experience a pleasant one. Technology has made dental treatment much more comfortable. A well-equipped office has digital X-rays that emit less radiation, for example.

Pediatric offices will have toys and games to make your child feel at home, but don’t hesitate to bring your child’s favorite doll or comforting teddy bear along for the ride. Some parents find giving their child earphones and allowing them to listen to their favorite music decreases anxiety. Remember, though, the dental team has extra training in childhood development. Communicating and establishing a caring relationship with your child will make them lifelong happy patients.

Stay Positive

Children pick up on their parents’ emotions. They are also quick to mimic what they see at home. A parent’s own oral hygiene practices and attitude towards dental visits will inevitably influence the child’s thoughts and actions.

Richard Mungo, DDS

Dr. Richard Mungo is a chair of dentistry at CHOC Children’s, a pediatric healthcare system in Orange County, California.  Dr. Mungo’s philosophy of care is to provide the highest quality of oral health care for the children in an atmosphere that is culturally sensitive and fully attentive to patients’ needs.

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