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Your Child with Special Needs: Survival Tips for the Dentist

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom and author
08/02/18  10:49 AM PST
special needs

The very first time I took my son, Charlie, to the dentist, I was a bundle of fear and loathing. I am perhaps the worst-case scenario for anything related to orthodontics. My teeth are weaklings, prone to cavities and overcrowding in my tiny mouth. I’ve had bonding and crowns and braces and then braces again. I’ve had my wisdom teeth out and then out again when a new one came in two weeks before my wedding. That one was a doozy. I vomited Oreo ice cream all over the bathroom I was now sharing with my brand-new husband.

And so, when it came time for me to take Charlie, I was anxious to the point of exhaustion. Just the thought of it made me tired. But he did what he always did and surprised me by being okay and mildly fascinated by it all. He touched the tiny round mirror they use to see the back of your mouth and he picked out a toothbrush and he watched “Cars 3” on the television mounted above the exam chair. The hygienists actually clapped for him on the way out. It turned out I was worrying for nothing.

But that was two years and countless visits ago. The enchantment has worn off, as has the beginner’s luck. Now, when we pull into the parking lot and he sees where we are, he starts to whimper. When I load him in his wheelchair and hit the handicap button on the double doors, he grabs the wheels, using his hands as breaks because, more than anything, he does not want to see what’s on the other side. He knows the place with the TVs and the fish tank and coloring books is also full of things that scrape his teeth and blue-gloved fingers and funny-tasting, gritty toothpaste. Who would voluntarily go in there?

So now I’m getting smarter about our trips and use the coping mechanisms that I have had to use on myself during all my countless dentist visits. It’s never going to be a trip to Disneyland, but here’s what we do to lessen the panic:

  1. Research

Now is not the time to pick blindly. If your child has special needs, especially sensory ones, whom you choose matters. There are dentists who specialize in treating kids with disabilities. Ask your child’s special education teacher or therapist or fellow parents. You want someone who already knows how to treat your child and you want a personal recommendation from somebody who’s been. Our dentist happened to be the one that visited Charlie’s special needs preschool. The office has private rooms for kids sensitive to sound, which is the biggest factor for us as Charlie hates the suction and the whirring sounds that are the typical background noise at the dentist.

  1. Timing

The time of day matters. I’m a morning person. My husband is not. This is why I do not expect him to be productive or make smart decisions until after nine a.m. I, however, am up and my mind is buzzing by sunrise and so I would much rather go to the dentist and get it over with than wait and sit with that anticipation until later in the day. Kids have their preferences too. Maybe first thing is better, as they might be too tired to handle one more thing after school. Or maybe afternoon works best because they’ve gotten some of that energy out at school or therapy. Or perhaps a day when they have no other commitments might be smart because they can rest before and after. Trust your instincts and don’t just take the first appointment offered. You know your kid. You know when they will most be able to handle the trip.

  1. Incentives

I have never been above bribery when it comes to things like this. Anything to make the appointment a little more bearable is worth it in my book. We’ve gone to the dentist and then straight to the ice cream shop. We’ve gone to the bookstore and picked out a new book. We’ve put pajamas on one hour earlier and stayed up one hour later after to watch a movie and celebrate the fact that we came and conquered. If my son knows something good will come out of this ordeal, he is much more likely to grin and bear it. I do this with myself too, when after I go to the dentist. I have no qualms about taking an extra hour post-appointment to go for a walk or sit in a coffee shop alone and “recover.”

Maybe your child loves the dentist. But I know we’ve all hit this moment with our kids when they resist going to therapy or that specialist downtown or that fitting for new leg braces or other equipment. It’s understandable. They know what’s coming and if what’s coming isn’t awesome, they’re smart enough to resist. The key for our family has been to make it a teensy bit less tiresome by padding the experience with preparation before and after.

special needs parents

Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.

Discover her new book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood.

Read her blog, The Mom Gene.

Follow her on Facebook.


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1 Comment

  1. Cathy
    Posted August 5, 2018 at 8:55 pm PDT

    Ugh. Taking my kid to the dentist has NEVER been easy. He has an intellectual disability. When he was younger he would sit on my lap with his legs sticking straight out – stiff as a board. He lost a shoe once because his little legs were flailing so hard. He cried and screamed so much that they made us the last appointment of the day so he wouldn’t scare the other kids. Eventually I just sent him with my mother. She had more success than I did. I took him once after she started and they asked me to have her bring him the next time. He’s now 30 and still doesn’t like the dentist. He doesn’t scream and cry anymore, but isn’t the picture of cooperation either. But it’s better than it’s been in the past.

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