If it seems as if your child’s teeth are a little off or as if every kid in the class is flashing a new set of braces, you probably have plenty of questions. You probably also have plenty of preconceived notions about braces.
If everything you know about braces is based on your experiences in middle school or high school, it’s time to take a fresh look at the subject. A lot has changed in childhood orthodontics since you were growing up. That includes the rise of braces that you can’t even see.
Advances in teeth-straightening technology
“Improvements are made every year,” says Dwight V. Buelow, DDS of Virginia Family Dentistry in Richmond. “New research is published monthly that helps us determine what works better, faster, and more comfortably. A primary focus of orthodontic research in the last 20 years has been which treatments for younger children are more effective and predictable. And, of course, Invisalign treatment for adults and teens has expanded greatly.”
The prevalence of Invisalign isn’t the only change in orthodontics since you were a tween. Traditional braces have been modernized too. Today they incorporate elastic wires that make for a less painful treatment, smaller brackets that are more efficient and discreet, and thermal wires.
At what age should my child be evaluated for braces?
Hearing of these advances may convince you to take your child to the orthodontist this fall. But if you’re still wondering, wonder no more. A checkup can do no harm. Your child may be too young for braces, but a first- or second-grade child isn’t too young for a checkup. Early planning now can save you both from a lot of anxiety down the line.
“The American Association of Orthodontists recommends the first visit with an orthodontist at age 7,” says Dr. Buelow. “I agree with them and so does Virginia Family Dentistry as a whole. Most kids won’t need treatment at that age, but it is very helpful to get a baseline snapshot of the child’s dental development.”
Age 7 may sound startlingly young, much younger than you remember. That’s because technology has improved and made it possible for younger children to get braces that are smarter and more effective.
“The research I mentioned has helped orthodontists be more precise about what treatments are most effective and predictable for younger kids,” says Dr. Buelow. “Using braces to correct crossbites is an example of a treatment for kids that really helps them out in the long term.”
Even with the assurance that orthodontic technology has advanced and that an early checkup is a sound idea, whether to actually put your child in braces can be a difficult decision. How do you know if your son or daughter is ready?
“The biggest factor for young kids is the amount of space they have for their teeth to come into their mouths,” says Dr. Buelow. “An X-ray of a 7-year-old might show six teeth or more at present. (I only have 24!) That’s because they have permanent teeth developing while some of the baby teeth are still present. It’s rush hour at age 7, and the dental traffic can be crazy.
“Various types of space maintainers and space increasers are much more common than braces for kids at that age. So it’s important for parents not to think of ‘going to the orthodontist to get braces’ for the younger kids. Instead, they should think of ‘going to the orthodontist to keep the dental traffic under control.’ ”
When genetics comes into play
Some parents may be tempted to think that their children need braces because they did something wrong. Did they let a child’s thumb sucking get out of control? According to Dr. Buelow, genetics is a bigger culprit when it comes to which children need braces.
“Genetics plays a big role,” he says. “Kids that have larger-than-average teeth but smaller-than-average mouths will be crowded. Kids with big jaws and small teeth will have lots of space. Genetics also plays an important role in the position of the lower teeth and jaw, from a profile view. If Mom and Dad have a prominent jaw, Junior is likely to have the same and might need braces to help the teeth bite correctly.”
He adds that although parents should make an effort to correct thumb-sucking habits, they should never ignore the impact of genetics. And it’s important to get the need for braces evaluated early on.
“Regular visits with the family dentist and/or orthodontist can reduce the need for braces by keeping the dental traffic under control using space maintainers and space increasers,” he says.
Braces in stages or all at once?
Your child may be a good candidate for getting braces in stages. In fact, this approach could save your family a lot of hassle.
“Braces on upper teeth first can reduce the tendency for new patients to temporarily bite on the lower braces,” says Dr. Buelow. “In my practice, we usually put upper and lower braces on together to save the parents and patients a visit. We sometimes use small plastic ‘bumpers’ to keep the patients comfortable if they are biting on their lower braces. There’s no right or wrong answer about this topic!”
Consult with a professional to make the most informed decision
With so many advancements in orthodontic care available today, identifying which direction is best for your child can be challenging without advice from a dental health professional. Speak with your child’s dentist or schedule an appointment with an orthodontist for more information.
Dwight V. Buelow, DDS is an orthodontist at Virginia Family Dentistry in Richmond