First Dental Visit for Toddlers with Special Needs

Dentist showing an x-ray to kid

Navigating appointment-making is nothing new to parents of kids with special needs. All parents spend their time and brain space on their kids' various appointments, but parents of kids with special needs have additional nuances to keep in mind when lining up healthcare appointments. They also might be dealing with other health issues that take precedence over standard oral health, making it hard to make time to develop a solid game plan. With that in mind, here are a few tips to smooth your path when taking your special-needs child to the dentist.

1) Start Early

Most dentists recommend taking your child for their first dental visit by the time they sprout their first tooth or turn one, whichever comes first. It's important to begin regular dental hygiene visits at an early age for all children — for children with special needs, it's especially important. When some medical issues may be unavoidable for your child, early dental visits can help prevent tooth decay right from the start and steer away from procedures that might be even more overwhelming for kids with special needs than their typically developing peers. It also offers the chance to monitor any problems with the developing palate, as well as lets your child establish a relationship with their dentist. Research supports the idea that repeat visits to the same dentist can help some children with special needs have positive experiences.

2) Interview Dentists

Ideally, parents will want to find a pediatric dental office to interview. Pediatric dentists are trained to address office-visit anxiety of many types, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Discussing your child with the dentist will help you know what to expect, so you can in turn prepare your child. It will also provide a time for you to explain potential challenges around this visit for your child, and make sure you can schedule an appointment for the best time of day for their disposition. Ask questions about how the dentist usually deals with children with special needs, and how comfortable they are mitigating issues your child might face (such as sensory issues). Autism Speaks has a dental tool kit to help guide parents of kids with autism, and you can ask your pediatrician or any specialists who work with your child for specific input on dental visits, too.

3) Prepare Your Kiddo

In addition to finding a dentist you feel good about and discussing a plan of action, you can prepare your child for the idea of a dental visit. Social stories are a great way to get started. Basically, a social story walks kids through a new process or concept, and begins to set expectations. You can find examples online, make your own or find a book that does the trick. Kids might want to see the office — ask the dental office if they have pictures they could send. They also might want to know what dental instruments look like ahead of time: You can show them a dental mirror, tooth scrapers, small flashlight, and more. You might practice putting on a mask to show your kiddo what the dentist could be wearing. You can help them practice reclining in a chair, putting their hands on their stomach, opening wide and having their teeth counted so that it's not brand new when they visit their dentist.

Still have questions? You can find more information about dental healthcare for kids with special needs, find out what's different about special needs dentistry, discover oral hygiene tips for people with special needs, and explore special care in oral health.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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