Illustrated portrait of Helen Mo
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Pediatric dentist Helen Mo believes in baby steps for the kids with autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental conditions she treats at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals.

Mo gradually introduces these children to dental care through the award-winning desensitization program that she founded. “It’s challenging for them to tolerate sensations like toothbrush bristles, the taste of toothpaste, or someone touching their face,” she says. Historically, many special-needs children were traumatized by being swaddled for cleanings and exams. But today “there are ways to expose them to things and change their behaviors without having to hold them down,” says Mo, who is also in private practice and teaches at UCSF.

To transform a fearful dental visit to something fun, she may spend more than a year working with an autistic child, their parents, and a behavioral therapist. The goal of a first appointment might be just visiting the office without having a meltdown. Ultimately, she wants patients to tolerate routine dental care with a positive outlook.

Mo grew up knowing her life’s work would involve caring for children. In high school, she volunteered with the Special Olympics. As an undergrad on a mission trip to Nicaragua, she assisted pediatric dentists in caring for underserved children. “My passion in pediatric dentistry is reaching as many children as early as possible,” she says. “Many adults are already set in their ways, but with children you have the potential to change their oral health experience.”

When COVID hit, Mo found herself unable to work. Restless, she jumped into action. To deliver the message of good oral hygiene to as many parents as possible, she created the Instagram account @the.dentistmom. Posts show her and her 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, role-modeling brushing and flossing. With 240,000 followers, Mo attracted the attention of children’s educational toy maker Lovevery, which will soon publish a picture-book titled Olivia Goes to the Dentist. She’s also been featured on Good Morning America, in Women’s Health, and elsewhere.

Mo’s message to parents is “Start early and have faith in yourself. Children take time to learn everything.” One thing they do quickly learn is the benevolence of a certain nocturnal harvester of baby teeth. “I personally love the concept of the tooth fairy,” says Mo. “I’m all for supporting that magical experience for them.”

Follow Helen Mo on Instagram @the.dentistmom 

– George Spencer for UCSF Magazine

Read the Summer 2022 Issue