Sensory Processing and Dental Health
Going to the dentist or brushing your teeth can be challenging for children who experience sensory processing differences. Check out these sensory tips and downloadables from one of our Occupational Therapists to make both brushing your teeth and going to the dentist a positive experience.
Tooth brushing can be a difficult activity for people with sensory processing differences. For some, the feel of the toothbrush in their mouth, the flavor of the toothpaste, and even the sights and sounds of the bathroom can be too intense. For a variety of reasons, getting your child to brush their teeth can seem like a battle. Check out some tips and ideas from one of our occupational therapists to try to make tooth brushing go a little more smoothly.
Don’t force it
- If tooth brushing is stressful or scary, it’s important to take it slow. Create positive associations with tooth brushing by singing a song, watching a short video, or even providing small rewards following tooth brushing
Take your time
- It’s OK to take it one step at a time—even getting 10 seconds of brushing is better than nothing! Some children benefit from starting to brush with just water, using a finger brush, or exploring a toothette sponge. Some children may start by wiping teeth with a damp washcloth and working up to tolerating a brush.
Prepare the sensory system
- Start by giving your child gentle deep pressure, like hugs or squeezes, to provide calming proprioceptive input. You can also help decrease sensitivity to touch by rubbing a soft wash cloth on your child’s cheek, lips, and mouth, using firm, predictable movements.
- For kids who are new to tooth brushing, knowing the expectations can help. Try using a visual of where to brush, like the one below. You can also use a visual timer, like a sand timer, to help children know how long to brush. A short song can also be a helpful cue—sing a 30-60 second song and brush until the song is done!
Mix it up
- Try different flavors of toothpaste, change the water temperature, or explore different sizes and types of toothbrush. Some brushes have cool characters, some spin and vibrate, and some even light up! For some extra motivation, have your child help you choose a brush.
- Brush your own teeth alongside your child to show them how it’s done. You can dance along, make silly faces, and make tooth brushing fun!
Going to the dentist can be challenging for some children. Having someone look in your mouth is uncomfortable and invasive, not to mention the actual cleaning! The dentist’s office includes many new sights, sounds, and sensations. Taking care of our teeth is so important to our health. Here are some tips from your friends at Project Play Therapy to help make trips the dentist’s office a breeze!
Prepare for your visit
Help your child learn what to expect at the dentist by reading a social story about the dentist, watching a child-friendly video about dentist visits, or show the child photos of the office. Some dental offices may allow you to come in and take a tour prior to your appointment. You can also create a step-by-step visual schedule to help your child know what will happen next, and refer to it throughout the visit.
After learning about what happens at the dentist, you and your child can “practice” for the visit by playing pretend. Lie back on the couch and open wide while your child plays dentist and examines your teeth! Role playing this activity can help ease anxiety and give children a chance to work through some of their worries.
Use sensory tools
Some dentists may allow children to wear headphones to dampen noise, listen to calming music, or watch a preferred video. Sunglasses are helpful to block the harsh office lights. Your child may enjoy holding a fidget toy while in the dentist’s chair. Many children benefit from deep pressure input to calm their sensory systems; you can try gentle hugs or squeezes, a weighted blanket, or holding a favorite stuffed animal for comfort.
Remember, sensory input that may feel OK to some can be overwhelming for others. Check in frequently with your child to make sure they are comfortable. It is also a good idea to talk to your dentist about your child’s specific needs before the appointment.
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