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If you’re the parent of a child with special needs, you know that seemingly simple tasks like getting dressed, eating, and sleeping are often an everyday struggle. So, when it comes to tasks that even adults fear — like going to the dentist — getting your child through a teeth cleaning can feel impossible.
Truthfully, there may not be a way to ensure a smooth, tear-free dental visit for your child, but for the sake of your child’s health and well-being, you have to try. The good news is that there are things you can do to help minimize your child’s discomfort and fear, starting with finding the right dentist.
By now, you’re used to researching your child’s needs and vetting each and every doctor and health professional your child sees ahead of time. The criteria for finding a dentist who will provide quality care and put your child (and you!) at ease are the same. First and foremost, he or she (and his or her staff) must be willing to listen to you when it comes to your child’s specific condition and accompanying needs. Beyond that, everyone in your dentist’s office should be naturally kind, properly trained, and reasonably accommodating.
Why does your child hate the dentist?
Every kid has his or her own particular challenges and fears. For example, one child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may not like the sound of the dental tools, while another may be sensitive to the bright, overhead light. That’s why it’s important for your dentist to know where and when your child, in particular, may need special consideration.
If your child has already been to the dentist, an explanation of your concerns may be easier. If you are preparing for your child’s first dental visit, consider this list of common issues patients with special needs face in the dentist’s chair:
- Children with mobility issues may need special accommodations to get in and out of the dental chair and/or may be uncomfortable during the visit.
- Children who are mentally disabled may not understand what is happening, and may need a parent or caregiver they trust to help explain the process as it takes place.
- Children with medical diagnoses may need special consideration regarding medications, as well as symptoms and side effects from other medical treatments or procedures.
- Children with behavioral or emotional conditions may respond better if you personalize their treatment. Children with autism tend to resist change, so it may help to have the same hygienist, wearing the same outfit, in the same room for every appointment. Patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be better able to sit through an appointment early in the morning, immediately after they’ve taken medication.
No matter what unique issues your child has, it’s important to discuss them with your dentist and his staff ahead of time. Ask your dentist for a consultation — over the phone or in person — prior to bringing your child in for a visit.
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What to Look For in a Dentist
Treating children with special needs is an area of expertise not every dentist can claim. It requires a combination of compassion, training, and experience that can be difficult to quantify. To help you determine whether your prospective dentist is right for your child, treat your consultation like an interview. Here are a few qualities to look for, in no particular order.
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Your dentist should be trained.
Not every dentist is qualified to treat children. Not only are they fidgety and fearful, a pediatric dentist must be trained to treat baby teeth, provide preventative care, and teach good oral health habits. Moreover, they work in an office specifically designed and equipped for little mouths.
Treating children with special needs requires all that knowledge, and then some. While it is impossible for a dentist to be trained for every diagnosis, illness, or challenge, your child’s ideal dentist will have some formal training in special needs dentistry. This training, often offered in the form of continuing education (CE) credits by organizations such as the Special Care Dentistry Association (SCDA), cover common conditions, treatment planning, legal concerns, and general best practices surrounding this type of care.
Don’t be afraid to ask your dentist if he and his staff regularly receive this type of training. You should also ask about his or her experience with children with special needs, including your child’s specific illness or condition. On top of those questions, one parent who has been through the trials and tribulations of securing good dental care for her own special needs children suggests the following list of questions for your prospective dentist:
- Do you have experience serving people with special needs?
- What does being a special needs dentist mean to you?
- Are you familiar with my child’s condition?
- What techniques do you use to treat a resistant child?
- Do you have local hospital privileges?
- Do you work with anesthesiologists for high-risk patients?
- What type of care do you recommend for high-risk patients?
- What is your experience with my child’s specific dental/feeding issues?
- Do you allow parents or caregivers to assist with the exams and procedures?
- Do you use restraints?
Of course, there is some controversy surrounding dental restraints, both physical and chemical. Some children love to be wrapped up tightly and, therefore, feel more comfortable and at ease when swaddled or restrained. Other children, however, may not take kindly to being immobilized during treatment. Similarly, sedation and the use of other medications for dental visits may be acceptable for some children and not others.
Your dentist should be accommodating.
A visit to a special needs dentist is not the same as a regular dental visit. According to Colgate, “The special needs dentist is aware of and tailors his or her approach to the patient’s additional needs.” In other words, a good special needs dentist doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to dental care. Some examples of accommodations include:
- longer appointment slots to allow patients frequent breaks during treatment,
- the ability to schedule necessary services over several appointments or combine them into one long appointment, depending on your child’s circumstances,
- various physical and chemical restraint options, and/or
- the option to reschedule appointments without fees or penalties in the event your child’s condition changes or he or she is simply having a bad day.
Of course, you’ll also want to be sure your dentist is accommodating in the “normal” ways, too. Check to make sure your dental office accepts and files your insurance, offers convenient payment methods, and offers appointment times that work for your family’s schedule.
Your dentist should be kind.
While there’s no degree that can verify it or any amount of experience to ensure it meets your standards, your dentist’s personality is just as important as any other factor. The way they interact with your child will go a long way in determining how comfortable your child is in their care. In this case, kindness extends beyond words and mannerisms. Other factors to consider when determining whether your dentist has the type of personality your child will take to include:
- Personable – A good dentist will attempt to get to know your child on a personal level to help him or her feel more comfortable. Look for a dentist who will sit and talk with your child about his or her favorite colors, cartoon characters, or activities and work those things into the visit.
- Trustworthy – Your dentist will probably need to convince your child that he or she won’t hurt them, especially if your child is fearful of the dental tools or has had a difficult experience in the past.
- A leader – Does your dentist lead their team with the same compassion and care you’d expect? Does he lead by example when it comes to how to interact with patients?
- Passionate – Dentists who are passionate about helping others may be more likely to provide compassionate care than those who are in it for the money.
- Communicative – The best dentists explain what they’re going to do simply and in a way that calms the patient prior to performing the task. For your child, this may mean allowing you or another caregiver time to offer an explanation to your child and/or taking the time to answer any questions either of you may have.
Like so many other aspects of special needs parenting, finding a dentist that checks all the boxes is not an easy task. That said, your child’s dental health depends on it. Using the skills you have acquired as an advocate for your child, you can and will find a provider with the skills, experience, and personality to put you and your child at ease and ensure they receive the dental care they need.