Exploring: Dentistry for Children with Special Healthcare Needs

This blog is for informational purposes and doesn’t establish a doctor-patient relationship. Learn more.

Quick note: This blog post uses the person or patient first terminology of “dentistry for children with special healthcare needs” rather than “dentistry for special needs children” because I want to be sensitive to the language that my patients prefer. Whatever term you prefer, you’ll find the information in this blog post!

Visiting the dentist can be a challenging experience for any child. But it’s especially true for children with special healthcare needs. 

Are you planning a visit to the dentist for your special healthcare needs child? Let’s talk about some specific examples of how special healthcare needs can make dental visits challenging, explore some tips for choosing a pediatric dentist for your child with special healthcare needs, and examine some of the challenges that neurodivergent kids might experience at the dentist (as well as what you can do about it)! 

Ready? Let’s explore.

VIDEO: Dentisty for Children with Special Healthcare Needs

What special healthcare needs can make dental visits challenging for kids?

Some of the conditions we find require special consideration in our office are neurodivergence, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, cancer, cerebral palsy, congenital heart conditions, diabetes, and Down syndrome. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, but these are the most common conditions. For this article, let’s focus on the specific challenges that neurodivergent kids experience- kids with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorder, OCD, and Down syndrome.

How to choose a dentist for your child with special healthcare needs

All pediatric dentists have had some training and experience with patients with special healthcare needs. Still, some providers (like Expedition Pediatric Dentistry!) will go out of their way to accommodate children with special healthcare needs. We do this because it aligns with our practice philosophy of customizing patient experience. And we believe every child deserves a great dental experience!

If you’re looking for a pediatric dentist in Bellevue, Washington, learn more about our work with special healthcare needs children here. If you’re out of state, here are some tips on choosing a dentist for your child with special healthcare needs.

  • Ask about their experience working with children with special healthcare needs. A dentist with training and experience working with children with special healthcare needs may be better equipped to provide the extra support and care needed during the appointment.
  • Children with special healthcare needs require much more communication and coordination with their other healthcare providers. Find a pediatric dentist willing to work cohesively with your child’s other specialists to make sure they’re making decisions that are in the best and safest interest of the patient. 
  • Find a dentist willing to help your child get familiar with the environment. This might mean photos or videos of the office. A fun waiting room where your child can play before their visit. Or schedule a dentist appointment for a consultation, so your child meets them before their first check-up appointment. This flexibility can be crucial in helping your child with special healthcare needs succeed at the dentist.
  • Ask friends or groups that support children with special healthcare needs! There’s nothing more powerful than a referral.

Tips for Dental Visits for Neurodivergent kids

Children with special healthcare needs tend to have unique things that make them comfortable regarding dental visits. The most common challenge for taking a child with a neurodivergent condition to the dentist tends to be sensory input. Coming to the dental office can already be very overwhelming, but for neurodivergent kids, it is extra challenging. With so many unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells, going to the dentist can trigger a significant emotional response!

Here are some ideas for how to prepare your neurodivergent child for their dental visit.

  • Discuss their upcoming visit. It can be helpful to prepare your child for the visit by explaining what will happen during the appointment and what they can expect. Social stories, pictures, or videos can help your child visualize the experience.
  • Talk to your pediatric dentist. You’re the expert on your child! Tell us ahead of time about their specific triggers or comfort items so we can do our best to help your child be successful when they come to the dentist.
  • Use visual aids and sensory tools. Giving your child visual aids, such as picture cards or a visual schedule, can help them understand what happens during the appointment. Sensory tools, such as a weighted blanket (we use our lead apron, which has just the right amount of weight) or noise-canceling headphones, can also help children with special healthcare needs feel more comfortable during the appointment.

Here are more resources for preparing your child for their first dental visit.

And here are some of the ways that we can make your child’s dental visit more comfortable.

  • Understanding your child. At our office, we talk to families to see if their child is “sensory seeking” or “sensory avoidant.” Of course, some kids have a blend of those! With this information in mind, we can create a more comfortable experience for them.
  • Dental visits for sensory-avoidant kids. Kids easily overwhelmed by sensory environments might benefit from more controlled environments. This might look like having the light dimmed. Other kids need things quiet, so your dentist might turn off the music or not schedule other patients at the time of the appointment.  
  • Dental visits for sensory-seeking kids. On the other side of things, we have sensory-seeking kids! These are the kids that want to touch everything or feel everything with their tongue or hands. They might want to hear equipment sounds or walk through each sensory experience before we get to that point of their appointment. Your dentist can spend some extra time with those kids, going through each step in the process so that they’re comfortable with the environment before the appointment begins.
  • Getting familiar with the environment. As mentioned above, familiarity can be exceptionally comforting for neurodivergent kids or other kids with special healthcare needs. This might mean giving them time to work through the experience and get comfortable. Sometimes, that means showing up a bit early and getting comfortable! And your dentist should be totally fine with that! That experience of coming and playing in the waiting room or sitting on the chair and watching TV for a minute can help make the next appointment much easier. 
  • Allow for breaks and use positive reinforcement. Leaving plenty of time before and after the appointment can be helpful. This allows your child to take breaks during the appointment if needed. Positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, stickers, or small rewards, can also help motivate your child and make the experience more positive.
  • Consider sedation or anesthesia. Sometimes, sedation or anesthesia may be necessary to help children with special healthcare needs receive dental treatment. This should be discussed with the dentist or healthcare provider beforehand.

The key to success is to be patient, understanding, and supportive of your child’s needs during the dental appointment. With these tips for choosing a pediatric dentist, preparing for the visit, and in-office, you can help your child feel more comfortable and make their first dental visit a positive experience.

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