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Before You Pick a Dentist for Your Child With Special Needs

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You know what you want for your child -- the best dental care possible, right? When looking for a dentist, you're of course going to want to find someone who knows his or her way around a mouth. But there are other criteria to consider when picking the practice that will become your dental home base. Children with special needs may have sensory and behavioral issues that make working on their teeth a challenge, and dental anomalies that will require specialized knowledge. Incorporate those things into your dentist search by weighing these five factors carefully:

Experience

The dentist with the most experience is not necessarily the dentist with the experience you need. If your child has dental issues as a part of his or her disability, you'll want a dentist who knows what to expect and what to do about it. Advocacy organizations in your area may be able to point you in the right direction. Dentists with experience working on people with developmental disabilities may be helpful if your child doesn't act the way a dentist used to typically developing kids might expect. Talk to a new dentist about your concerns, and if you have any doubts about how they will be handled, keep looking.

Policies

Kids need to sit still during dental procedures, and for some children with special needs, that is exceedingly difficult. Dentists have different policies for restraining children who just can't control their movements, ranging from sitting them on your lap as you hold them down, to using a papoose board, to employing sedation. Before you sit your child down in a dentist's chair, make sure you know how restraint will be handled, and that you approve of the method. The middle of a visit, while your child is wailing and the professional is losing patience, isn't the time for a thorough and thoughtful discussion.

Location

If your child is likely to make only a couple of dentist visits a year, location may not be a major concern. But if extensive dental work is in the offing, and you're able to factor location into your choice, don't ignore it. Think of how hectic your schedule already is, and imagine adding long drives for dental work into the mix -- with your child anxious one way, and in pain or discomfort the other. Since dentists often work with oral surgeons and other professionals in their area, you're likely to have to go far for those services as well. The trip may be worth it, but you'll want to be sure.

Insurance

Dental insurance is a mixed blessing -- it can greatly decrease the cost of your family's dental care, but it can also greatly decrease your choice of professional, sending you far afield for someone who doesn't quite meet your needs. If you favor a dentist who's not on your insurer's list, find out what's involved in following that preference. Can you pay out of pocket and get reimbursed for some of it? Will the dentist's office help you in submitting forms? Can your health insurance pick up the tab for work related to your child's disability? Ask around before settling.

Personality

The person who's going to be sticking his or her hands in your child's mouth should be somebody both of you are comfortable with. The dentist and staff should show respect to you and your child; have a clean and safe-seeming office environment; and do everything possible to lighten rather than add to the dread your child may feel over dental work. As practices change over time, and your child changes, too, you may want to evaluate your patient-dentist fit every few years and adjust accordingly. Your child deserves to be as comfortable as possible at this uncomfortable appointment.
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