Undivided Resources
Article
10 Tips for Making a Dentist Visit Easier for Kids with Disabilities

10 Tips for Making a Dentist Visit Easier for Kids with Disabilities


Published: Jun. 18, 2024Updated: Jun. 27, 2024

Featured image

Raise your hand if you dread bringing your child to the dentist. (We see you!) Many developmental disabilities come with specific dental issues, like teeth growing in differently, and sensory issues, like teeth grinding and chewing, which can lead to tooth decay. Sitting in a dentist’s chair while a stranger touches their mouth with noisy tools can easily lead to sensory overwhelm for kids, so how do we help take care of their teeth and overall health?

We can’t promise that these 10 tips will make you a fan of dentist appointments, but they should help your child’s visit go much more smoothly. Whether working on your child’s oral care is a struggle or you’re preparing your child for their very first dental visit, here are resources and ideas to try.

Tops for Dentist Visit

Find a dentist who is comfortable working with the supports your child needs.

The hardest part of taking your child to the dentist might be finding a good dentist who is experienced with patients who have autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or another condition requiring extra support needs. As we recommend in our article about building your child’s care team, start local and ask lots of questions.

You can often get dentist recommendations in your local parent support group (like Undivided’s private Facebook group) or from an organization for your child’s specific diagnosis. SPARK recommends, “Ask for recommendations from your doctor, the local Special Olympics, and friends. A nearby dental school is a useful resource. The school may have a clinic that treats people with developmental conditions, or know of local dentists who do.” The Special Care Dentistry Association is another place to search.

When you call to make an appointment, notify the office staff that you will need extra support for your child. Is there a time of day that works best for your child to come in for a visit? Could the staff arrange for dimmer lights or other sensory needs, like a weighted vest or sunglasses?

Autismcenter.org provides this script you can use to help you talk about your child’s support needs:

  • Hi, my name is
  • I am calling to schedule an appointment for my child , who has extra support needs.
  • Are you the person I should speak with about my child’s needs, or is there someone else available in your office I can speak with?
  • I would like to ask about how to best prepare both your office and my child for this appointment. Can we discuss the best way to go about doing this?
  • My child does best when
  • My child is afraid of
  • My child will feel more comfortable in your office if
  • If relevant, ask questions related to your child’s specific fears or challenges. (For example: Is there an elevator?)
  • In the past, my child had a successful dental visit when
  • In the past, my child had a hard time at the dentist when
Gain access to Undivided's comprehensive resources and receive our weekly newsletter.
Sign up today

Prime with books, videos, Social Stories, and pretend play.

Occupational Therapist Katie Krcal tells us that some kids have a lot of trouble tolerating touch in their mouths. She recommends building familiarity with objects in their mouths using lollipops, teethers, and chewy tubes. You can also play a game of copy cat with your own, and see if they will imitate you.

There are many videos on YouTube showing kids sitting in a dentist chair without crying or resisting. Showing your child someone their age who is calmly going through the same activity can be a good example that everything will be okay. As you’re watching the video, you can pause in different spots and describe what’s happening and how your child might feel. Here are some we found:

Books and pretend play can also help your child learn about and get comfortable with going to the dentist.

  • You can ask your local librarian for recommendations on books about going to the dentist, or here are some books to shop for.
  • Encourage your child to play dentist with a favorite stuffed animal or family member. You can encourage your child to practice skills such as holding their mouth open and keeping their hands on their stomach or on a toy in their lap. You may want to practice touching your child’s mouth while wearing a glove.

Social Stories are also a great way to prime your child about what to expect from a dentist visit. Here are some organizations that provide dentist visual stories you can download for free: The Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative Pathfinders for Autism Carol’s Club (you’ll need to create a free account first)

Visit the dentist’s office before the appointment.

Visiting with your child can help alleviate anxiety and build positive connections before the visit. You may even want to repeat this several times by visiting the office, meeting the staff, sitting in the chair, and then leaving without any procedure to work up to the full dental visit. Undivided Navigator Jen says, “It's also great if you have your child watch you go to the dentist. (Maybe have an extra support person there to help manage behaviors.) Maybe they won’t last the entire appointment, but at least they can see you get X-rays and start the cleaning process.” This works for siblings as well so that your child can see more familiar faces complete a dental visit.

While there, you may want to ask the staff if you can take photos of the office and treatment room to add to a custom Social Story for your child. Undivided Navigator Beth says, “I took pictures of my son in the lobby and in the dentist's chair and created my Social Story from pictures of him. He loved it!”

We also recommend that you complete paperwork and provide insurance information ahead of your child’s appointment.

Plan an activity or a reward that your child can look forward to after the appointment.

In advance with your child, decide on a reward to enjoy once they finish their dental procedure.

Pediatric Psychologist Dr. David Stein says that the best reward for most kids is something social! For example, playing a game with a parent, reading together, etc. “Time and social interaction is the best because number one, it's the most powerful reinforcer… Stickers or bracelets, they lose their appeal, right? How many times can you get a new junky bracelet that's going to turn your arm green? Food and other things like that are not as good of a motivator. But attention from another human being that you love never really gets old. So yes, I prefer to do social rewards.”

Count down to your child’s appointment and make it seem exciting.

Let your child know the visit is in three days, two days, etc. You may want to make a paper chain, cross days off the calendar, or show another visual representation of the appointment getting closer. By presenting it as something to look forward to and creating a positive attitude around the event, you can help ease their trepidation.

Pack a bag with comfort items to bring to the appointment.

Pediatric dentist waiting rooms often have toys or games, but your child may appreciate special items from home while waiting for their turn or during the procedure. (You could also call the front desk when you arrive and ask about waiting in the car until the dentist is ready.)

You may also want to pack noise-canceling headphones or earplugs if your child would be bothered by the sounds of dental tools.

Offer your child choices.

Have an honest discussion with your child and offer age-appropriate choices. Child life specialist Rachel Delano says, “Children benefit from honest steps, even when they are resistant or will not like what’s going to happen.” If your child benefits from talking about the plan ahead of time, she says, it’s important to discuss the steps and allow your child to make choices when possible. “If you anticipate that your child will be resistant, tell them the day before and say, ‘We can go today or we can go tomorrow.’ Then you’re able to remind your child about their choice, and they feel more in control.” Note that you may have to accept (and pay for) a missed or rescheduled appointment to reassure your child that they are in control. Other ways to give your child choices could include asking them what music to listen to during the appointment, or the flavor of toothpaste the dentist will use.

Explain to your child that they have the right to consent. Giving their consent allows children to feel a sense of readiness and control. This process will take time, and it might mean a few failed appointments. You can explain to your child that their body belongs to them and they have the option to say no. This is easier said than done, we know! But taking the time now will be easier in the long run than years of struggling and bribing your child while they resist.

Be present with your child during the procedure.

Make sure you discuss with your dentist whether it will be helpful for you to be present with your child during the procedure. Some dentists may not want parents present if the parent's anxiety makes the kid's anxiety worse, for example, which is something you may or may not agree with. In any case, it’s important not to promise your child anything until you have had the conversation with the dentist.

If you will be present during the visit, you can continue to offer your child choices, such as sitting by themselves or in your lap (ask the dentist if this is okay during the procedure). You may want to ask the dentist or dental hygienist to go over each step before beginning so that your child knows what to expect.

Krcal tells us that some children have a hard time tolerating laying back for extended periods of time, so she recommends bringing a cozy blanket to help them feel a little more calm. Dentist’s also use bright lights to be able to see into our mouths, which some kids may have a hard time with. Her tip: most offices offer sunglasses, but if yours doesn’t, bring a pair and see if your child will tolerate wearing them.

Establish signals such as thumbs up or thumbs down, or whatever your child currently uses, to communicate with the dentist if anything hurts or they want to stop.

Natalies shares, “A game changer for my daughter was being able to see what the hygienist/dentist is doing during the appointment. Allowing her to hold up a mirror or her device to view the process decreased her anxiety dramatically! I shared with the office prior to the appointment that this helps ease her anxiety and they have been very supportive.”

Discuss how the appointment went.

Once you leave the dentist’s office, having a discussion with your child about how the appointment went and how your child felt can help encourage calm, patient behavior for future visits. If they decide to say no and leave without any dental work, this can allow you to understand their fear and hesitancy. If they were able to complete the visit, discussing the events and saying something like, “Next time won’t be as scary,” can reinforce how well they did and add positivity surrounding the event.

Practice good oral care between dental visits.

Cavities aren’t just expensive to fix; they can lead to serious health problems and, of course, lead to even more anxiety around dental visits. Here are some tips to make everyday oral care easier for you and your child:

  • Start small, such as helping your child feel comfortable just holding the toothbrush themselves or brushing their teeth in a cozy spot like the sofa or bed.
  • Make tooth brushing fun. Let them watch you brush your teeth, and show them you’re positive about it.
  • Offer choices, such as selecting the toothbrush they want or music to listen to while brushing their teeth.
  • Establish a tooth brushing routine at the same time each day.

It can also be helpful to have visual instructions. This video shows how to brush teeth with a breakdown of each of the steps written in the video description, and here’s a free visual printout of the steps to teeth brushing that you can post in the bathroom. Check out our article Getting Ready for the Day: Teaching Functional Life Skills for more tips on helping your child practice daily hygiene and self-care.

Gain access to Undivided's comprehensive resources and receive our weekly newsletter.
Sign up today

Contents


Overview

Find a dentist who is comfortable working with the supports your child needs.

Prime with books, videos, Social Stories, and pretend play.

Visit the dentist’s office before the appointment.

Plan an activity or a reward that your child can look forward to after the appointment.

Count down to your child’s appointment and make it seem exciting.

Pack a bag with comfort items to bring to the appointment.

Offer your child choices.

Be present with your child during the procedure.

Discuss how the appointment went.

Practice good oral care between dental visits.

Join the Undivided Community to get more resources like this in your inbox

Tags:

Author

Brittany OlsonUndivided Content Editor

Reviewed by:

  • Lindsay Crain, Undivided Head of Content & Community
  • Adelina Sarkisyan, Undivided Writer and Editor
  • Karen Ford Cull, Content Specialist and Writer/Education Advocate

Contributors:


Promise Image
Each piece of content has been rigorously researched, edited, and vetted to bring you the latest and most up-to-date information. Learn more about our content and research process here.
A Navigator is your Partner at each turn
Every Undivided Navigator has years of experience supporting families raising kids with disabilities or parenting their own. Partner with an Undivided Navigator for a free Kickstart to learn first hand what support feels like!
tick-icon
Expert-driven content, guidance, and solutions.
tick-icon
Member events and office hours with real answers, plus access to our private parents' group.
tick-icon
Priority to begin a free Kickstart of the Undivided Support System with a dedicated Navigator.
“It’s so helpful to have one place that you can go to get many answers.”–Leeza Woodbury, with Navigator Kelly since 2020
*Currently offering Navigator Kickstarts to residents of California