Special Needs Children Have Unique Dental Concerns: Are Parents Prepared?

Pediatric Special Needs Dental Care

Did you know that special needs children often have issues when it comes to dental care that many pediatric dentists are not properly trained to deal with nor have experience with? Pediatric dentists go through specialized training to address these issues when treating children with special needs. However, most of them never use the training. This is why it is important to choose a pediatric dentist that regularly treats children with special needs.

Special needs children often have a higher risk for dental problems such as tooth decay, gum disease, oral injury, and inability to open their mouths wide enough for dental work.  Add to that sensory issues that can lead to increased sensitivity in the mouth, and the combination can lead to all sorts of problems in the dental care setting.

As 20 percent of U.S. households have children with special health care needs, it is important to realize what pediatric dentists can offer to special needs children and their families. Finding a skilled pediatric dentist who knows how best to work with special needs children can be a bit of a challenge for parents. But doing your due diligence to search out these caring types of dentists will pay off in huge rewards in the long run.

What should you look for in a pediatric dentist?

The first quality a parent should look for in a pediatric dentist is a caring, loving attitude toward themself and their child.  Without a caring doctor, the issues that may arise could wreak havoc on your child’s experience at the dental office. Compassionate and thoughtful planning by the dental staff throughout the entire experience is essential.

Getting the child to the office comfortably is a problem for some special needs kids and their parents.  Second, the parent should look for pediatric dentists who are willing to allow the parent and their child to visit the office several times to get used to the actual trip to the office, going into the building, and once inside, waiting in the playroom or waiting area.

Meeting the pediatric dental staff can be very frightening and confusing for the special needs child who may or may not be used to seeing and interacting with new people, especially ones with masks and gloves.  Third, locating a pediatric dentist that will allow special needs children and their parents to come to the office for a “meet and greet” with the staff before the actual appointment is a key factor in how successful that first appointment will be. 

Some pediatric dentists may even allow a progression of pre-appointment visits: 

  • Driving to the office and coming inside
  • Driving to the office, coming inside and playing in the waiting area
  • Driving to the office, coming inside, playing in the waiting area, and meeting the staff
  • Driving to the office, coming inside, playing in the waiting area, meeting the staff, and sitting in the treatment chair (At this point, it may be feasible to start the actual dental exam.  If not, that would be the next step in the progression.)

Additional considerations and recommendations

Because the basic physical challenges that may be presented by the special needs child can lead to issues like tooth decay and gum disease, pediatric dentists may recommend specialized solutions like holders for floss, rinses of fluoride solution, foam mouth props, and toothbrushes with adaptive equipment for better handling (example: double-sided toothbrushes). These special tools can be useful when dexterity is limited or motor skills are weak. For those with sensitivity issues, parents can start by just touching the toothbrush to their child’s lips, and as they approach the time of the appointment, increase to pressing a vibrating electric toothbrush to their lips and mouth.

Pediatric dentists have extensive training in how to deal with anxiety in special needs children and may offer sedation dentistry or sleep dentistry as an option. Some pediatric dentists even offer hospital dentistry for those patients who are unable to be treated at the office due to a variety of physical or mental issues. Treatment under sedation or general anesthesia is one option that many parents of special needs children may not have contemplated. Sedation can be performed in the office with oral medication which is painless for the child. Often this proves effective in the compliance of the child during a dental procedure. General anesthesia is another method to aid in the completion of dental treatment. This occurs in conjunction with an anesthesiologist and appropriate staff in a hospital setting. Many times general anesthesia is chosen when treatment is extensive and/or a child is too young to sit in a dental chair.

The best advice a pediatric dentist could offer any parent looking for special needs dental care for their child is to start the process of finding a good pediatric dentist early. The earlier, the better, in fact, as The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends finding your child’s “dental home” by your child’s first birthday.  Depending on your own particular child’s needs, it may take more or less time for your child to get comfortable with the process. Early intervention ensures short treatment times increasing the probability of cooperation from the child. Regular exams and cleanings throughout the year allow the dentist to assess the child’s oral health and compensate for any deficiency in home dental hygiene. For some patients, additional exams may prove beneficial to achieve this goal and to ensure a higher comfort level for the child.

Additionally, it is best to find a pediatric dental office that will allow you to see the same hygienist and pediatric dentist at each visit, making the overall experience easier for your child, for you, and for the staff. Earning the trust of the special needs child is of paramount importance. The child needs
to feel comfortable and at home in the office establishing positive
relationships with both the dentist and the staff. All children crave
familiarity, and special needs children respond better in an environment associated with positive memories. It is important to address each child’s individual needs and connect with them at their particular emotional and developmental level. Seeing the dentist and staff more than twice a year provides more opportunities to establish trusting bonds with caregivers.

About Hurst Pediatric Dentistry and Dr. Joby Hurst

Dr. Joby Hurst, in his multiyear pediatric specialist training, has mastered the procedures and techniques necessary to provide superior care to this often overlooked group of beloved children. His gentle nature coupled with a caring staff often turns a formidable challenge into a manageable success.

Dr. Hurst treats children of all ages, from birth until 18 years of age (and even beyond) who may be challenged with physical disabilities, behavioral disorders, mental disabilities, or special healthcare needs. Dr. Hurst is trained and prepared to provide dental care on into the adulthood of a
special needs person. Many of these patients he has followed on
into their thirties or forties. Once a child becomes acclimated to
the care and routine of the office, he or she does not have to
start the process over when they reach their twenties.

Each patient, no matter the special need, is treated equally and with respect at Hurst Pediatric Dentistry.  The dental team takes pride in their abilities to care for special needs patients, and they continually educate themselves to serve this population of patients with the highest standard of special needs dental care. He and his staff are available to assist in every way possible to ensure the best quality dental care. Through monitoring, treatment,
education, and overall encouragement each special needs child can enjoy quality dental hygiene throughout their lifetime.

For more information or to book an appointment, call 205-969-7454, or click here to schedule.

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