If your child has autism, a developmental delay or a disability, you know that brushing, flossing, and dentist visits can be really challenging. Yet, oral hygiene is crucial, especially because studies show special needs children are more likely than typical kids to have cavities and other dental problems.

Cavities, gum disease and oral trauma

Special needs kids often have difficulty brushing effectively, because they may have malformed teeth or they don’t have the physical or mental ability to be able to do it by themselves.“They have an accumulation of plaque and bacteria all over the teeth and gums,” said Dr. Steven G. Goldberg, inventor of the DentalVibe Injection Comfort System. So when food gets stuck, the bacteria feeds on it – causing cavities, gum disease and periodontal disease.Kids who have uncontrollable movements, or children who bite their cheeks, lips, or tongues because their teeth do not meet properly, may also have oral trauma.

Certain medications with a high sugar content can cause swollen gums. Likewise, if a child uses a feeding tube, or eats high sugar foods because of a failure to thrive, he or she is more susceptible to gingivitis, inflammation of the gums, and tartar, according to Dr. Rebecca Slayton, chief dental director and chair of the National Children’s Oral Health Foundation’s scientific advisory board.

In addition, some kids who are orally averse and don’t like certain foods and textures or the stimulation of brushing and the taste of toothpaste are also more likely to have dental problems, Slayton said.If your child has special needs, here are 10 ways you can keep his or her teeth healthy at home and make dentist visits stress-free.  

1. Make brushing easyFor kids who need help brushing, put the toothbrush in a bicycle handle so “they have something big, thick and spongy to hold onto,” Goldberg said. Brushing should always be supervised, and if floss doesn’t work, use a water pick. If your child bites, place gauze on the back teeth and then brush.

2. Keep it funThe earlier brushing becomes a pleasant experience, the easier it will be to make it a habit, according to Fern Ingber, president and CEO of the National Children’s Oral Health Foundation: America’s ToothFairy. Try to brush when your kid is most cooperative, and distract him or her with music or something pleasant.

3. Start earlyYour child’s first visit to the dentist should be a positive experience, so be sure to get there by age 1 or when the first teeth erupt.

4. Find a good dentistMost pediatric dentists work with special needs kids, but it’s important to find one who is patient, will take time to explain everything to your child, and work with you to make sure your child is comfortable. “If you get a compassionate doctor, it will be a great experience,” Goldberg said.

5. Call aheadWhen you make a dentist’s appointment, provide the staff with information about your child and his specific needs. A heads-up can allow them to set up the office and make sure extra staff will be on hand to help. If your child cannot sit in the chair, the dentist can also find an alternative.  

6. Do paperwork beforehandAsk the office to send all of the paperwork ahead of time, and bring a copy of your insurance card with you so you can save time and give your child the attention he or she needs.

7. Bring a comfort objectKids don’t know what to expect at the first dentist visit, so bring a favorite blanket, toy, or toothbrush so they’re not afraid.

8. PrepareTalk to your child about what to expect at the dentist – from the chair that tilts back to the tools the dentist uses. You can also prepare by putting your child in your lap and brushing his or her teeth. “They get used to the feeling of someone else touching their mouths and hovering over their heads. It’s a scary feeling unless you’re used to it,” Goldberg said.

9. Use the right wordsAsk the dentist beforehand what words and phrases you should teach your child so if the dentist says, “open your mouth,” he or she know what to do.

10. Wipes, gels, and rinsesAccording to a study in the Journal of Dental Research, young children who used xylitol wipes were significantly less likely to develop cavities. If you have to administer your child’s medication at night and you’ve already brushed his or her teeth, wipe the mouth clean with xylitol wipes, Slayton suggests. Also, ask the dentist about an antimicrobial rinse or custom trays with peroxide gel, two methods that can help prevent cavities and gum disease too.