Children with special health care needs, just like all children, deserve and need proper oral health care from birth. Many parents and caregivers are unaware of the importance of oral health to good overall health. Delaying or skipping dental care for your child, or not helping your child practice proper oral hygiene, can increase the chance of dental disease.
According to the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, special needs children are almost twice as likely to have unmet dental problems compared to children without special health care needs. Gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, is common among children, but even more so for children with special needs. Some medications taken by children with special health care needs may cause dry mouth or gingivitis, complicating their oral health.
Children need healthy teeth to help them chew, speak and smile. Cavities can cause your child pain and serious health problems. Poor oral health can cause your child to have problems eating, speaking, learning, and socializing. Although tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease, it is preventable. Regular dental visits and proper oral hygiene will keep your child’s mouth healthy and cavity free.
Parents who have a child with special health care needs understand that regular oral hygiene practices can be difficult. Here are some tips to make it easier and more productive for everyone:
Begin early. Begin caring for your child’s mouth soon after birth. Wipe your baby’s gums daily, after feedings and before bedtime, with a clean, wet washcloth. This will get your baby used to having his/her mouth cleaned daily.
First visit by first birthday. Take your child to the dentist or pediatrician for an oral exam by the first birthday. The healthcare provider will identify any dental problems and will talk to you about how to prevent cavities for your child. Early dental visits get your child familiar and comfortable with having his/her mouth examined. Getting your child used to going to the dentist early on can help prevent difficulties later on.
Brush 2x a day for 2 minutes. Children should brush their teeth 2 times a day for about 2 minutes each time with a toothpaste that contains fluoride.
Your special needs child may resist brushing due to the feeling of the toothbrush in the mouth or the flavor of the toothpaste. Experiment with different toothpaste flavors. Try different types of toothbrushes and different bristle textures. Consider using an oral swab if your child cannot tolerate the sensation of a toothbrush.
Physical limitations can make it tough for your child to brush his teeth. If your child has difficulty holding a toothbrush, try enlarging the handle of the toothbrush. To make the toothbrush handle bigger, wrap it with aluminum foil, gripped shelf liner, or a washcloth wrapped with rubber bands.
If your child has difficulty reaching his or her mouth with a toothbrush, you can lengthen the handle of the brush. Run the handle under hot water and bend it at the neck. Attach a ruler or popsicle stick to the toothbrush handle to lengthen it.
It may be easier for your child to bend over and bring his or her face to the toothbrush rather than bring the toothbrush up to the face. It may also be more comfortable for your child to hold the toothbrush while propping his elbow on the counter, a box, or a towel while brushing.
Communication and routine are essential. Talk with your child regularly about the importance of his/her oral health. Build brushing the teeth into your child’s morning and nighttime routine. Brush your teeth with or in front of your child so he/she can see you practice good oral health habits, too. Unhealthy oral habits, such as putting fingers in the mouth or chewing on foreign objects, should be discouraged.
Regular dental visits and proper oral hygiene can keep your child’s mouth cavity free for life. For easy-to-understand guidance you can use to establish good oral hygiene routines, make dental visits more comfortable for your child, and to improve your child’s oral health, visit HealthyTeethHealthyKids.org.
Additional Resources for Parents
- The Maryland Office of Oral Health
- Maryland Department of Health, Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs, Resource Locator
- Maryland’s Medicaid dental program, Maryland Healthy Smiles, provides free dental care for children from birth through 20 years old and during pregnancy.
- Recommended books for children on oral health care, visiting the dentist, and general information about teeth