How to detect dental discomfort in nonverbal kids

  • Family
  • Monday, 04 Mar 2024

Self-soothing behaviours may be some attempts by the child to alleviate or overcome dental pain. —

PARENTS are often asked these inevitable questions:

“Has your child started walking?”

“Does he eat on his own?”

“Can he say papa or mama?”

All parents want their child’s development to be on track for each milestone, and a child’s verbal skills are often the most noticeable to parents.

Nonverbal child is a term used for children who aren’t talking yet. A nonverbal child usually relies on gestures and signs to show parents what they need or feel.

Identifying dental discomfort in nonverbal children can be challenging as they are unable to communicate their pain or discomfort. It is therefore crucial for parents to be able to recognise the signs that indicate their child is having dental problems or discomfort, helping parents to seek early dental care.

Here are some of the signs and behaviour changes that parents have to observe in their child:

Changes in behaviour

1. Increased agitation: Dental pain can make nonverbal children more irritable, fussy, or easily agitated. They will cry more frequently and experience mood swings.

2. Changes in sleeping patterns: Dental discomfort often disrupts night sleep. This will lead to difficulties in falling asleep or frequent night waking.

3. Loss of appetite or refusal to eat: Nonverbal children may avoid eating or have less appetite when they have dental pain. They may resist certain foods or chew only on one side of the mouth to avoid pain.

4. Soothing behaviours: Self-soothing behaviours such as thumb-sucking, excessive chewing on objects, or rubbing the face may be some attempts by the child to alleviate or overcome dental pain.

5. Avoidance of oral activities: The child may resist or get distressed during tooth-brushing routines.

Changes in eating habits

1. Avoiding foods: Children who are unable to communicate verbally and experiencing dental pain may show reluctance to certain foods that require chewing. They usually display a preference for softer foods that are easier to chew.

2. Difficulty with chewing foods: Dental pain can cause discomfort when children chew food. They may avoid eating or show signs of hesitation during mealtimes.

Facial signs

1. Facial grimacing: Nonverbal children with dental pain may exhibit signs of pain or discomfort through facial expressions. Parents should be observant for grimacing or furrowing of the brow.

2. Guarding the mouth: Your child may naturally guard the painful area by keeping their hand near the mouth or covering it. This act is to avoid any contact to the face or painful area.

3. Pulling at the ear: Dental pain can sometimes be referred to the ear or cheek, leading nonverbal children to tug at their ears as a response of discomfort.

Identifying dental discomfort in nonverbal children is paramount, and it requires careful observation from parents on their child’s behaviour, facial expressions and eating patterns. If parents suspect that their child is experiencing dental pain or discomfort, it is crucial to seek professional dental care from a practitioner who is experienced in working with nonverbal children.

The importance of early intervention and regular dental check-ups are vital in maintaining optimal oral health and well-being of nonverbal children.

Associate Professor Dr Ahmad Faisal Ismail is a paediatric dental specialist and is a lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He is also the President of the Malaysian Association of Paediatric Dentistry (MAPD).

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