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HomeArticlesNavigating the oral health of children with special needs

Navigating the oral health of children with special needs

Children with Down syndrome or other disabilities need special attention when it comes to oral health. And it’s essential to find a dentist who understands their unique needs.

Otilia Ceh and Chloe (10) of Peoria.

For most of us, preparing for a routine dental appointment doesn’t take much thought. If you’re the parent of a child with special needs, it may require more planning.

For Otilia Ceh, preparing for a trip to the dentist starts about a week before the appointment. Ceh is a Peoria mother of four, and her 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, has Down syndrome.

Leading up to an appointment, Ceh and her family start talking with Chloe about what will happen at the dentist’s office and the reasons for going. “We make the dental experience exciting by reading books and watching videos about [going to] the dentist,” Ceh says.

While it is important for all family members to practice good oral hygiene at home, children with Down syndrome or other disabilities need special attention when it comes to oral health. And it’s essential to find a dentist who understands their unique needs.

Dr. Bruce Spigner, a Delta Dental of Arizona board member and dentist who is widely recognized for his expertise in hospital and special needs dentistry, points to some common oral health concerns for children with special needs:

  • Increased risk of early childhood cavities
  • Wearing down of teeth due to grinding
  • Crowding of teeth, caused by poor muscle tone or tongue posture
  • Congenitally missing teeth
  • Increased risk of trauma from seizures or falling
  • Enamel erosion caused by digestive disorders

Some medications also can harm oral health, according to Kristine Larcey, a registered dental hygienist and pediatric dental expert who has worked alongside Spigner. Inhalers and breathing treatments can affect oral flora and lead to thrush. Some seizure medications can cause severe overgrowth of gum tissue, more on Regular use of antibiotics can stain a child’s teeth. Oral medications sweetened for taste can increase cavity risk.

Finding the right dentist

Regular dental visits mean potential problems will quickly be identified and treated. So, how do you find the right dentist?
Start by understanding the difference between a general practice dentist and a pediatric specialist.

“A pediatric dentist has completed two extra years of training to specialize in the treatment of children, including those with special needs,” Spigner says. “They are highly skilled at providing dental care and managing children at all stages of development and ability.”

Spigner recommends asking for referrals from friends who have children with special needs. It’s also a good idea to ask your child’s doctor for recommendations. That’s how Ceh found a dental home for Chloe. Once you narrow down your options, Spigner suggests calling each office and asking questions:

  • Are you comfortable with/do you have experience treating children with [my child’s condition]?
  • Are you a board-certified pediatric dentist?
  • Do you provide different levels of sedation?
  • Do you have privileges at a local children’s hospital?

“Chloe’s pediatric dental office is all about the movie theater experience,” said Ceh. “They are great at distracting kids and making the entire visit fun.”
Some dental offices, including Clore’s, have special rooms for children who are sensitive to sound, light and other sensory triggers.

“If Chloe is having a bad day, I let the office know when we arrive and they give her care in that special room,” said Ceh. “It’s also helpful that they are equipped to sedate Chloe when she needs more extensive treatment.”

The dentist and other caregivers are there to support you and your child. Find a dentist you trust and keep the same routine each time you go so your child is never surprised.

At-home dental care

Consistency also is key to ongoing oral health at home. From morning and nightly dental routines to seeing the same hygienist each visit, it helps when your child feels confident and knows what to expect.

Spigner recommends kids brush twice a day and floss at least once. When children are unable to adequately brush their own teeth, a parent should step in and help. A fluoride rinse or toothpaste also can help prevent tooth decay.
Ceh and her family let Chloe brush her teeth first, then they follow behind to ensure she has brushed every spot. Chloe’s family also flosses for her to ensure no food particles are left between teeth.

Each child is unique, so find a dental routine that works and try to stick to it. Surround yourself with other parents who have children with special needs and seek out experts when you have an oral health concern. A healthy mouth supports overall wellness and keeps your child smiling for a lifetime.

Cassie Calvert
Cassie Calvert
Cassie Calvert is the marketing and communications manager at Delta Dental of Arizona, the state’s largest dental insurance company. For more tips for keeping your child’s teeth and gums healthy, visit



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