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6 Ways to Make a Trip to the Dentist Less Scary

Many people dread going to the dentist. For a child on the spectrum with SPD (sensory processing disorder), a trip to the dentist can be even more terrifying. The new sights, sounds, and sensations can be incredibly overwhelming, and it can create a situation that is stressful for everyone involved. However, preventative dental care is important, and getting your child used to the experience early on could potentially save you some problems down the road. Here is a list of tips and tricks that can make your child’s visits to the dentist less stressful.

1. Start Good Dental Habits Early

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Brushing and flossing regularly is important for the health of your child’s teeth. Help your child pick out her own, soft-bristled toothbrush. Finding one that has her favorite character on it or is in her favorite color can be a big help. Make sure it’s the right size and that she can hold it comfortably. Experiment with different types of flavored toothpaste to find one that is tolerable — you can often get a wide variety of flavors from a pediatric dentist, but many manufacturers make toothpaste in different flavors now, like chocolate, strawberry-banana, or even bacon (yes, bacon). Start by showing your child the toothbrush and toothpaste, so she familiarizes herself with them. Place them against her mouth so she knows what they feel like. Then begin brushing your child’s teeth for her, standing behind her with the back of her head against your chest. Maybe she will need to be facing a mirror, so she can see what you’re doing; maybe you’ll need to brush her teeth in the living room or in bed, wherever she’s most comfortable; or perhaps you’ll need a visual board or schedule that has different icons for standing still, brushing, spitting, flossing, etc., that she can move after each task is completed. You could also have icons for every tooth in her mouth that she can remove after each one is brushed. A timer may also be beneficial, so she knows exactly how long it will take. You can try distracting your child by singing a song, watching a show, or reading a story while brushing. After you are finished, move on to flossing, starting again with her head against your chest, and working through each tooth.

It may take time to figure out what’s best for your child’s individual needs. Once you figure out what works, be consistent and make it part of the daily routine. You may wish to incorporate small rewards after each step or after the task is complete, whether it’s verbal praise, time with a toy, or something else she loves. As she gets older and more accustomed to this routine, the goal is to have her to do it on her own, if possible. You can also eventually graduate to a power toothbrush, but establish good habits with a standard toothbrush first.

2. Practice Dental Visits At Home

Making a game out of something you despise usually makes it more fun, right? Practice habits at home that will be useful at the dentist, using rewards to keep your child motivated. Have your child practice opening her mouth widely for several seconds at a time. Also have her practice lying down and staying still, keeping her feet straight, holding her hands together on her tummy, and listening to instructions, like when to spit. It may be beneficial to have a visual list of these tasks, or icons, so your child can see what’s expected of her. To help familiarize her with the dentist’s office, you could request pictures of the interior from the dental office, or check their website so your child can familiarize herself with the place she’s going to visit. Pro tip: Request dental wings from your dentist prior to the visit, so your child can practice biting down on them for x-rays.

3. Start Dental Visits At A Young Age

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It’s important to have your child become accustomed to dental visits very young, so that the first visit doesn’t end up being for a dental emergency. That way, her first visit will be less scary. Do some research and find a dental office that has practice with kids with special needs. Try taking her for a “desensitization visit” where she can become familiar with the office space and staff without getting any actual dental work done. Take her into the room where she will eventually get her cleaning, and have the staff show her how the chair moves, what the instruments look like, and explain what will be done during her first real visit. You can also try bringing her along to one of your own appointments (along with another adult who can supervise) so she can see how flawlessly you handle the dentist!

4. Communicate During The Visit

After the desensitization visit(s), schedule a regular appointment. Make sure that the dental office is aware of your child’s needs, and that they are prepared for the cleaning to stretch over a few sessions. Communicate your child’s preferences and be sure to let them know what they can do to lessen your child’s anxiety. Once your child is in the room where dental work is going to be done, let him explore and look around again. Then ask him to sit in the chair, like you’ve practiced at home, with his feet out straight and hands on his tummy. He may enjoy the motion of the chair easing him from sitting into lying down, or he may prefer for the chair to already be in its final position. Some parents sit on the chair with their child in their lap for the first few visits so he will be calmer — do whatever works best. Remember, this may take several visits. Take baby steps. Ask the dental hygienist or dentist to explain their instruments and turn on the electric ones before they start work on your child’s mouth, so your son knows what they sound like. Also request that they use their fingers first, to get the child accustomed to general touch in his mouth, before using any instruments. Take frequent breaks during the visit if your child is uncomfortable or upset, but keep the mood positive!

5. Mitigate Sensory Overload

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Dim the lights. Bring headphones that fit your child comfortably as well as music that calms him or makes him happy. Bring along his favorite story to read to him. Make sure he is in comfortable clothing and has a favorite toy nearby. Bring sunglasses for that pesky light they always shine above your head. Make sure there are a limited number of people in the room, so your child doesn’t get overwhelmed.

6. Ask About Medication

This is absolutely up to you as the parent. Getting a sedative can help ease the process for longer procedures like getting a filling, especially if your child is extremely uncomfortable and refuses to let them get work done. Discuss medication with your dentist if you feel strongly about it.

More Information

For dental professionals: print out tips and general information about ASD here. For parents and caregivers, visit here or here:

Getting your child to practice good dental habits and visit the dentist successfully can be frustrating. Dental visits and hygiene habits can be a common problem area for those on the spectrum. You’re not alone! Be consistent, communicate, and find a dentist familiar with your child’s needs. Let us know what’s worked for you (or what hasn’t!) in the comments!

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