Adopting a proper oral health care routine at home can be challenging for children and adults with special needs. Yet, children with special needs are almost twice as likely to develop dental problems than those without. If you are a parent or caregiver of a person with special needs, it is important to pay attention to their oral health. Read on to discover some tips to help you get started.
Why is dental health for people with special needs important?
First, it is important to understand that the term “special needs” refers to a wide spectrum of conditions. These can range from cerebral palsy to autism spectrum disorder to learning disabilities to blindness or deafness to cleft lips. Here are some of the most commonly encountered special needs and disabilities:
· Developmental disorders (e.g., Down syndrome)
· Intellectual disability (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome)
· Sensory impairments (e.g., blindness)
· Behavioural and emotional disorders (e.g., autism)
· Physical disabilities (e.g., loss of a limb or paralysis)
As mentioned above, people with special needs are more likely to develop dental issues such as cavities and gum disease. For example, Down syndrome and genetic disorders can cause teeth to erupt later than usual, sometimes as late as two years of age. Similarly, extra teeth, overcrowding, and malformations are common. These conditions can all lead to gum disease and tooth decay as teeth are harder to clean.
Children with special needs: tips on getting started with dental health care.
Here are a few tips on helping you establish and adopt a good dental health care routine at home.
1. Start early
As soon as you bring baby home from the hospital, start wiping down their gums and the inside of the mouth after feeding. Then when their first tooth appears, start brushing. You can learn more about caring for baby’s teeth and gums in our blog article. A first visit to the dentist should also be planned by the age of one.
2. Make them feel safe
Once children are older, creating an environment where they feel comfortable and safe is important. For example, some children with autism spectrum disorder may not like bright lights. In this case, try dimming the bathroom lights or move to a more calming area. The Canadian Dental Association offers a very helpful printable resource for parents of children with special needs.
3. Show and tell
Many people learn through imitation. As such, brush and floss your own teeth in front of them. Go slowly and explain what you are doing and why.
4. Get them used to the toothbrush and floss
First, practice opening their mouth wide. If they cannot keep their mouth open, you can try using two brushes. One to prop the mouth open, the other to brush. Next, touch the toothbrush on their teeth and gums so they get used to the feeling. Remember to go slowly and explain what you are doing. If your child cannot rinse or gags easily, you can try a fluoride rinse if they are old enough. Last, move on to flossing. If using floss is not working, you can try a water flosser like the Waterpick®.
5. Now it’s their turn
If they are able, let them brush and floss on their own at their own pace. Buying toothbrushes with their favourite cartoon or movie characters can also be a great incentive to get them motivated. Remember to use the right toothbrush and the right amount of toothpaste for their age. Moreover, you should always supervise young children when brushing and flossing. (There are also toothbrushes with handles adapted by the occupational therapist)
6. Routine is key
Children do well with routines, especially children with special needs. Have them brush and floss at the same time every day . . . and twice a day!
7. Limit sugary foods
As cleaning teeth can sometimes be difficult for people with special needs, it is important to focus on nutrition and limit sugar intake. Keep healthy snacks handy and encourage your child to drink water or rinse after eating sugary treats.
Adults and seniors with special needs
Oral health in older adults with special needs is just as important as in children and is critical to their overall health. Depending on their abilities and needs, some adults may need assistance in brushing and flossing. Be encouraging and soothing and explain everything you are doing. If the person becomes too agitated, stop. Do not force it. Simply try again later. Additionally, if you are caring for seniors who wear dentures, make sure to clean dentures daily.
Schedule regular dental visits
As people with special needs are more likely to develop cavities and gum disease, it is important to schedule regular dental appointments. Not all dentists are equipped to treat patients with different needs. You should therefore inform the clinic of the patients’ specific needs. Moreover, regular visits to the dentist can help children feel more at ease and reduce their anxiety. You should also consider how you can help make them feel safe in a new environment. And tell your dental team about any issues that may trigger unwanted behaviour.
If you are caring for a child or adult with special needs, please call us to discuss how we can help you take care of their oral health. And make an appointment today.