Written by: Dr. Michael Shevon, Dentist, UCP of New York City
Proper oral hygiene – the daily care of your teeth and gums, and frequent monitoring by a dentist – is a vital part of every child’s overall health and well-being, but is especially essential for many children with developmental disabilities, who are at greater risk for serious health problems resulting from poor oral hygiene. Good oral hygiene is necessary for proper speech and nutrition and can improve self-esteem. Poor oral hygiene can result in a higher incidence of tooth decay and periodontitis (gum disease), which has been linked to cardiac disease. Children with developmental disabilities are also at a higher risk of suffering more dental disease, having more missing teeth, and having difficulty in locating accessible dental care.
Children with developmental disabilities will often need more assistance in maintaining proper oral health. You should start brushing your child’s teeth twice a day once [there are] teeth, using a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste on a soft bristle toothbrush. Proper brushing should take two minutes. Also, be sure to floss your child’s teeth once a day as soon as two teeth erupt adjacent to one another. You should also talk to your pediatrician or dentist about your child’s possible need for fluoride supplements or an antimicrobial gel/mouthwash (chlorhexidine).
The easiest way to help brush your child’s teeth is to cradle his/her head in one arm, while standing behind and slightly to one side while brushing. Encourage your children to do as much as they are capable of themselves. This may require adapting their toothbrushes to aid manual dexterity, which can be done in several ways to assist children with limited dexterity. A rotary toothbrush may also be beneficial. Remember that all children should be assisted and supervised while brushing until they are seven or eight years old.
What your child eats is also important for healthy teeth and gums. A balanced diet is important for long-term dental health. It is just as important to be careful about when and how often a child eats, remembering that sugary foods and drinks should be limited to mealtimes only and frequent snacks should be avoided.
Overall increased awareness to your child’s special dental needs and a higher commitment to oral hygiene are necessary for children with disabilities. You should take a team approach to their dental care, including strictly monitored home care and frequent dental visits to ensure their continuing oral health and happiness.