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Promoting Oral Health for Children & Youth
with Special Health Care Needs

Massachusetts Family-to-Family Health Information Center

boy in dentist chairFinding the right health care provider for a child with special health needs takes time. Finding a dental health provider for children with special health needs can be particularly challenging. Unlike medical specialty health providers, such as neurologists, cardiologists, or orthopedists, whose expertise is treating individuals with complex medical conditions, dental health providers do not always understand how special health needs impact oral health. And, they do not always know how to accommodate the unique behaviors an individual with special health needs may have, especially while undergoing invasive procedures in their mouths.

Children with special health care needs are subject to the same secondary health issues as their peers. While it is important to eat nutritious foods and engage in appropriate physical activities to keep their bodies healthy, it’s equally important to take good care of their teeth. As Patti Hackett, the co-director of the Healthy and Ready to Work National Resource Center says, “… the teeth are the gateway to health.”

Even if you are fortunate to have a wonderful dentist or dental hygienist, it can be a challenge to teach children and youth with special health needs good oral health habits. Families and dentists shared the following tips to help promote children’s oral health at home:

  • Read books about tooth brushing and visiting the dentist. If you need a book suggestion, read the fun, interactive story at www.ada.org/public/games/story.asp.

  • Parents should brush their teeth at the same time as their children to model good dental health habits.

  • If it’s difficult for your child to hold a toothbrush, there are many adaptive grips that may make it easier.

  • Some children find it uncomfortable to tilt their heads back so a parent or other caregiver can floss their teeth. Consider having your child lay down on a couch or bed for flossing and then move to the bathroom for brushing.

  • In general, if a child can tie her shoelaces, she can brush her own teeth. If your child can’t brush her own teeth, stand behind her and have her rest her head against you, as opposed to facing the child. You can also sit on the floor and have the child sit in your lap facing out with her head resting against you.

  • If your child can’t tolerate the toothbrush bristles, try wrapping gauze around a popsicle stick and wiping the surfaces of his teeth.

  • Make tooth brushing part of your child’s bedtime routine. Sing a song while you or your child brushes. When the song is over, the child knows brushing is finished.

  • If it’s too hard for your child to spit into the sink, let him spit into the bathtub. It’s a bigger and lower target and easier to clean than the floor.
  • Many toothbrushes come with gimmicks children enjoy, such as glow in the dark, blinking lights, or spinning bristle heads.

Learn more about the oral health needs of children with special health needs at http://mchlibrary.info/KnowledgePaths/kp_oralhealth.html#Special.

If you have a strategy to share, contact the Massachusetts Family-to-Family Health Information Center at 1-800-331-0688, ext. 210 or e-mail massfv@fcsn.org. We’ll add your tip to our list.