Reducing Oral Health Obstacles for Disabled Children

By Claudia Rojas on February 9, 2023 in General oral health

Father and son smiling

While developmentally disabled children do face extra challenges taking care of their teeth and gums, the right support makes it possible for most to maintain a healthy smile. That’s why it’s important for parents and caregivers to help with daily oral health routines and make regular dental visits a comfortable experience.

Let’s learn more about the challenges disabled children face. Below, we’ll go over a few ways to support the oral health of children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, seizure disorders, vision and/or hearing impairments and other cognitive and physical disabilities.

A large national study showed that children with developmental disabilities had fewer dental visits and more unmet dental needs than other children.1

Disabled Children Are at Higher Risk for Oral Health Issues

It’s an unfortunate truth that oral health problems can be more likely to develop among children with disabilities due to behavioral, physical and/or cognitive challenges. Here are a few common issues to look out for:

  • Tooth decay, gum disease and missing teeth are common.
  • Teeth that are not aligned (a problem known as malocclusion), can make chewing and speaking difficult.
  • Misaligned teeth also create brushing challenges that increase the risk of gum disease, cavities, and oral injuries.
  • Habits that damage oral health can develop, such as teeth grinding and clenching, holding food in the mouth for too long (pouching), mouth breathing, and/or tongue thrusting (pushing the tongue against the back of the teeth).
  • Delayed tooth eruption can occur in children with Down syndrome. The first baby tooth may not appear until the child is 2 years old.
  • Mouth trauma and injury from falls or accidents are more frequent in people with seizure disorders or cerebral palsy.

Why Are Those With Developmental Disabilities More at Risk?

There can be a variety of risk factors depending on a child’s disability, but some of the more common causes include:

  • Chronic medications: Some medications have high sugar content, which can cause dry mouth that leads to a buildup of plaque and bacteria. Another potential issue from medication is excess gum growth, which can increase the amount of bacteria in the mouth.
  • Food pouching: Holding food in the mouth for an extended period of time without swallowing can cause excess sugar to stick to their teeth, making cavities more likely.
  • Muscle issues: It can be more challenging to sit in a dental chair depending on the issue.
  • Challenges with brushing and flossing: Physical disabilities may make a daily oral health routine difficult.

Preparing for a Successful Dentist Visit

A little extra planning and preparation can go a long way toward a successful visit to the dentist. In fact, that preparation begins prior to even scheduling an appointment. Begin by doing some online research on providers near you and find a pediatric dentist who has experience treating children with disabilities.

Once you’ve found the right dentist, there are a few ways that you can all work together to create a positive, healthy experience:

Days before your child’s appointment, call the dentist’s office to discuss making the appointment more efficient and effective:

  • Discuss anything the office can do to help make your child more physically comfortable, especially if the child has difficulty sitting in the dental chair.
  • Make the dentist aware of your child’s communication skills and anything the office can do to help them feel emotionally at ease.
  • Provide a list of any medications your child is on, as well as any dietary restrictions or other challenges. In particular, let your dentist know if your child has a latex allergy, which occurs more often among those with disabilities. This information can influence the treatment your dentist provides.
  • The day of the appointment, bring items with you that may help your child relax, such as a favorite toy or portable music player.

After the Visit, Stick to an Oral Health Routine at Home

It’s vital to brush twice a day for two minutes each time and to floss daily. Continue to assist or supervise your child with their daily oral health care if they are having difficulties. (A floss holder or floss pick may make this process easier.)

Also watch for food pouching or other issues – if this is common, encourage rinsing the mouth out with water after meals and snack times.

1 Obeidat, R., Noureldin, A., Bitouni, A. et al. Oral health needs of U.S. children with developmental disorders: a population-based study. BMC Public Health