Caring for your child’s teeth can be tough at the best of times.
For children with a learning disability, autism or both, there may be extra challenges such as sensory issues around having their teeth brushed, or the texture of toothpaste. Some children are unable to describe tooth pain.
Identifying dental problems and treating them early enables children to continue to lead fulfilling lives.
In this article
Why is a healthy mouth important?
A healthy mouth is important for overall health and wellbeing. Good oral hygiene can affect your child’s ability to eat, sleep, talk, and play. It’s also important for how they feel about themselves.
A healthy mouth also reduces the risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes and lung infections such as pneumonia.
Teeth cleaning tips
Ideally, tooth brushing should start as soon as the first tooth comes through so that it becomes part of your child’s daily routine. All children need help with tooth brushing until the age of seven. Your child may need help for longer than this.
Stand or sit behind and above your child, so that you can see where you are brushing and so you can support your child’s head.
Brush your child’s teeth twice a day – before bed is most important. Use a fluoride toothpaste. After brushing, spit but don’t rinse.
Using a manual toothbrush correctly is just as good as an electric one. Use a smear of toothpaste (at least 1000ppm fluoride) until they are three. Then increase to a pea-sized blob (1000ppm and 1500ppm fluoride).
If your child doesn’t like the taste and texture of toothpaste, there are flavourless or low foaming brands available. Make sure you use one with the right amount of fluoride. If you are struggling, try brushing the teeth with water first, then rinse the brush and dab some toothpaste around the teeth.
Caring for your child’s teeth may put extra pressure on you as parents. Be kind to yourself, but don’t give up. People with learning disabilities have higher levels of tooth decay, so brushing your child’s teeth at home is really important.
Preventing tooth decay
Tooth plaque is a sticky layer of germs that coats the teeth. When plaque reacts with sugar, it produces acid. This causes decay or ‘cavities’ in the teeth.
Tooth decay and gum disease are the most common UK dental problems, but are almost always preventable. Schools can help, and some dentists may visit your child’s school to do checks. Speak to the occupational therapist (OT), who can provide visual charts as well as practical tips with tooth brushing.
If you can, choose foods and drinks that h are low in sugar. Some medications contain sugar – do ask for sugar-free alternatives.
Some children are unable to describe tooth pain. Look out for eating on one side of the mouth only, pulling at the mouth, unexplained changes in behaviour, or emotional outbursts.
Sometimes health professionals put these symptoms down to someone’s disability, and don’t investigate or treat them. This is called diagnostic overshadowing. That’s why it’s so important to get regular dental checks with a dentist with experience of learning disabilities and autism.
Finding a dentist
All children get free dental care from the NHS. As soon as your child gets their first tooth, or before their first birthday, you should arrange their first check-up with a dentist.
Some dentists have experience of helping children with learning disabilities and autism, so ask what experience they have. You can find a local dentist on the NHS website. The Equality Act 2010 says people like dentists must make reasonable adjustments so patients with learning disabilities and who are autistic can use their service.
Some children with physical or learning disabilities or medical conditions may not be able to treated at their dental practice. Specialised dental services are commonly provided by community dental services. You can ask your dentist to refer you, or contact the NHS to find out more.
If you think your child might need urgent treatment, and you have a dentist, contact them on the usual number. You can also call the NHS non-emergency number on 111.
“The Community Dental Service has been superb for my son. He gets additional time allocated for appointments, he can investigate the equipment, ask questions. Everything is explained to him. He sees the hygienist there who is brilliant with him and is going to teach him how to floss his teeth himself.”Parent carer
Preparing for a visit
Your child may not understand why they need an appointment. They may struggle in the waiting areas, and you may find it difficult to persuade them to go into the dentist’s room. Celebrate the small steps, as it can take longer for disabled children to understand what is happening and why.
There are simple things you can ask your dentist to do to make the visit easier. These are called reasonable adjustments.
- Ask for a quick “hello” visit before the appointment.
- Try to get an appointment at the start of the day so there is less waiting.
- Explain to the dentist what stresses your child or triggers behaviour.
See our tips for visiting the doctor for more ideas on visiting health professionals.
“It took us four appointments, spaced over every 3 months for my son to enter the dentist’s room. I asked for the preventative varnish to be applied – this acts as a sealant to stop tooth decay.”Parent carer
What happens if my child needs dental treatment?
If your child needs dental treatment, there are usually a number of options. Speak to their dentist, and together you can agree what will work best for your child.
If your child is likely to become extremely distressed during treatment, you may want to ask your dentist about sedatives. Some children require treatment under general anaesthesia (while they are asleep). The advantage is that all the treatment can be completed at one time.
Most parents recommend telling your child about the treatment as early as possible. You can try using symbols and storyboards (Widgit symbols or social stories, for example) to help prepare your child.
“We tell her exactly what treatment she is having. Her dentist explains the procedure step by step before doing it and is honest with her. She’s even managed to get her to use toothpaste. I think having a dentist who understands is key.”Parent carer
Our oral & chewing collection
Visit our Fledglings shop for products to help with teeth cleaning and dental care.
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