Braces are a rite of passage of childhood that have become even more common.
“Without a doubt, there’s a high demand for aesthetics and less tolerance for malalignment, so there does seem to be an increase in braces,” said Dr. Eladio DeLeon Jr., the Marvin C. Goldstein Chair of Orthodontics at the Dental College of Georgia.
Face it, we all want pretty teeth and a great smile, and braces can help deliver that. “Parents come in because of the aesthetics, but there’s also function,” said DeLeon. “So the end goal would be a beautiful smile and also teeth that function.”
What your kids can expect with braces
According to DeLeon, most orthodontists like to see children around ages 6 and 7 for their first visit, especially if the first permanent molars are misaligned when they start to appear, what’s called an “abnormal eruption pattern.”
Children can even have braces between ages 7 and 11, but usually only for really bad bites. Most children get braces after 11 or 12, when all the permanent teeth finally grow in.
Depending on what needs to be corrected, braces may be worn for 12 months to two years on average. After braces, kids may also need to wear a retainer as the next transition phase.
But if you’re thinking about braces as that clunky mouthful of metal you or your friends had to live through back in your teens, forget that. “Because of technology, I think braces are better than they’ve ever been,” said DeLeon. “Their material, their fabrication, their lower profile—they’re smoother, and the manufacturing technology has improved greatly to make the appliance more comfortable and attractive.”
Even more comfortable
Still, there’s an adjustment period. Your child’s gums and inner mouth aren’t used to having a metal or plastic appliance inside 24/7, so those tender tissues could feel a little sensitive and sore at first.
For the most part, appliances today are smooth and contoured, but if there happens to be a section that’s rubbing uncomfortably inside the mouth, orthodontists provide wax that kids can apply to the appliance to help smooth it down. Warm salt-water rinses or topical over-the-counter medicals can give some temporary relief too. “But after about a week, everything is fine, and kids will pay less attention to their brackets,” said DeLeon.
Sometimes orthodontists may also place the brackets in two phases, putting the uppers on first then the lowers at a later time, so kids have time to adjust. “This way, they don’t feel overwhelmed,” said DeLeon. “Dental hygiene is a critical part of having braces, and how children adapt to the braces. If they start out on a bad foot and their teeth are sore, they may not be as compliant. If they adapt really well, they’re happy throughout treatment.”
What hasn’t changed
No one can expect to just wear the braces for a couple of years, take them off and—tada!—there’s a beautiful smile.
“Everyone has to understand that it’s a team effort, with the patient being the central focus. We expect cooperation and compliance,” said DeLeon.
- Brushing: Brushing may be the most important thing that kids do to help maintain their braces—and clear away food, which will get caught in the appliance. Take note: Food will get stuck, which feeds bacteria, leading to cavities and a not-so-pretty end result. So here’s the ideal: Kids brush after every meal and snack. But here’s what’s a little more realistic: Kids should brush at least every morning after breakfast and every evening before bed. If they can carry a toothbrush in their backpack or purse and use it after meals at school, all the better. Insider’s tip: DeLeon actually suggests that kids use a mechanical or electric toothbrush: “You get more bang for the buck,” he said, since kids may spend more time brushing with an electric toothbrush.
- Flossing: Flossing is also important to help get rid of trapped food. Again the ideal is for kids to carry floss with them and floss many times a day. But, realistically, they should floss at least once a day, preferably at bedtime.
- Eating a healthy diet: You know what every dentist says: Sugar is bad for teeth. It’s even worse if you wear braces because all that sticky candy and sugary soda? It’s even more likely to get stuck on your teeth, creating a field day for bacteria to snack on. So make sure your child is eating a healthy diet, focused on whole grains, lean meats, dairy, vegetables, fruits and plenty of water, with sugary treats and drinks reserved as just that: a treat, not an everyday part of the diet.
- Avoiding specific foods: There are certain foods that your child just shouldn’t have, because of the risk that those foods could break or damage the very expensive braces you just purchased. These include: popcorn, ice, hard candies, sticky or chewy candy, nuts, hard pretzels, corn on the cob, raw apples or carrots, and bagels or other hard rolls.
- Banding or wearing an external appliance: Not every child will need to use elastics or rubber bands or wear an external appliance at night as part of their braces. “But if we give directions and goals with elastics, we have to expect children to be compliant and fulfill goals in order to minimize time in treatment,” said DeLeon.
It’s a rite of passage
“Braces are exciting,” said DeLeon. “If you look on the front cover of most magazines, books or websites, you’ll often see beautiful smiles. So that’s why everybody’s here. Everybody wants a beautiful smile, and it’s a very short time commitment to make to get that beautiful smile.” As a result, patients have to opportunity to start every morning with a beautiful smile in the mirror, which is a great way to start anyone’s day.
For kids who are unhappy or reluctant about braces, parents should help them focus on that. “Kids are motivated with the possibility of going to high school with braces off and a pretty smile,” said DeLeon. “Braces can have a tremendous impact on self-esteem, especially today with social media teasing and bullying. It’s why orthodontics is fun, being able to help children with that.”