Children with special needs often have unique oral health issues that are a result of their health condition, oral sensitivity, diet, or difficulty eating. Certain developmental disabilities may also affect the skills needed for completing everyday tasks, such as routine dental hygiene. Children who have special needs often have a higher risk for dental problems as well, so learning how to maintain the oral health of your child despite the challenges is essential to their overall wellness and quality of life.

Common Dental Concerns and Challenges

If you have a child with special needs, their condition may affect saliva production, how oral structure and teeth grow, what your child is easy to eat, and more. Some of the most common dental concerns and challenges in children who have special needs include:

  • Bruxism – Your child may grind their teeth during the day or while sleeping, and over time this can damage teeth.
  • Dry Mouth – Medications or your child’s condition may lead to dry mouth. It can also affect their nutrition and result in dental problems like gum disease, mouth infections, and tooth decay.
  • GERD – This can cause your child’s mouth to be more acidic, wearing down their teeth.
  • Bad Breath – Diabetes, digestive problems, some medications, and chronic sinusitis may result in bad breath.
  • Holding Food in the Mouth – Some children may hold food in their cheeks or mouth, an issue known as food pouching. This can result in the growth of cavity-causing bacteria.
  • Medications Affect Gums and Teeth – Certain medications may contain sugar, increasing the risk of cavities. Other medications may affect saliva production while certain seizure medications may result in enlarged gums.
  • Delay in Tooth Eruption – Your child’s teeth may take extra time to erupt, something that’s very common in children who have Down syndrome.

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Mouth

Since children with special needs have a higher risk for oral health problems like gum infections, bite problems, enamel irregularities, and cavities, it’s so important to work on maintaining a healthy mouth. Here’s a closer look at a few tips that can make caring for your child’s oral health a bit easier.

Tip #1 – Assist Your Child in Brushing Twice Daily

Brushing daily is one of the most essential tasks for a healthy mouth. If your child needs help or some adaptations, here are some tips that can help.

If your child needs help brushing:

  • Be sure you’re able to see each tooth
  • Use a small amount of toothpaste on a soft bristled brush. For children who are bothered by the toothpaste or those with difficulty swallowing, you can brush with fluoride mouthwash instead.
  • Help your child rinse with some water after you brush. If they can’t, give them a drink of water.

If your child can brush on his own but needs a bit of help, here are some creative options:

  • Add a strap to the toothbrush to make it easier to hold if your child uses a strap to hold other items.
  • You can make the handle of the toothbrush bigger by using foam tubing or a bicycle grip to the handle. Another option is to cut a slit in a tennis ball, sliding it onto the toothbrush handle for easier grasping.
  • Other toothbrush options, such as a water pic or electric toothbrush, may make brushing easier for your child. 

Tip #2 – Get Professional Help with Sensitivity and Tolerance Issues

Many children with special needs have increased mouth sensitivity and may not tolerate brushing and flossing well. It’s often difficult to address this on your own, so take the time to get professional help for your child with these issues. Professional therapy may help your child overcome these problems so brushing, flossing, and dental care become easier.

Tip #3 – Don’t Forget Routine Dental Visits

Regular dental checkups and cleanings can ensure any potential problems are found before they cause your child discomfort and pain. It may take a little time to help your child feel comfortable at the dentist. Consider scheduling a visit to the office with no treatment. Let your child see the office, sit in the dental chair, meet the dentist, and get some oral hygiene tips.

It’s also a good idea to work with a dentist’s office that has experience with children with special needs so they’re prepared to help your child relax throughout dental checkups and treatment. Be sure to talk with the dentist and office staff about any concerns you have before treatment so you can all work together as a team to maintain your child’s oral health.