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What to Know About Braces

Make sure your child has a great experience in the orthodontist chair.


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No parent is ever thrilled to hear the words: “Your child needs braces.” But with a little knowledge, both you and your kid will feel at ease throughout the process—and get excited about the results. Here’s what you should know from start to finish:

It’s not just cosmetic.

“A beautiful smile is a healthy smile,” says Brent Larson, DDS, president of the American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) and professor and director of the Division of Orthodontics at the University of Minnesota. “When the teeth and jaw are aligned correctly, it looks good, too. But we also address functional issues such as a misaligned bite or teeth that are missing congenitally.” Difficulty biting food, speech problems and mouth breathing are among the concerns an orthodontist may be able to correct.

Get your kid evaluated early.

Many orthodontists offer a free or low-cost initial consultation. “We encourage families to see an orthodontist by the time [the] child is 7,” says Bob Bray, DDS, in private practice at Brayces Orthodontics in South Jersey and former president of the AAO. “We can correct some issues while your child’s mouth is developing, rather than wait until he or she is a teenager.” At the appointment, your orthodontist will assess what’s happening and may suggest periodic visits for monitoring. Typically only a few kids this age actually need to start treatment right away.

They’re more affordable than you think.

Insurance usually includes some orthodontic benefits. Many orthodontists offer in-office or third-party payment plans, too. “It’s often more like a monthly cell phone payment, so it’s [more] affordable for families,” says Larson. Other options may include getting a discount for paying up front, or using funds from your flexible spending or health savings accounts.

Your child still needs to see his dentist regularly.

Once treatment starts, your child will see the orthodontist every six to 10 weeks, says Larson. But you’ll need to keep up with visits to the dentist, too, and go every six months for checkups. Also, because it’s easy for food to get caught in braces, kids need to brush after every meal or snack and before bed (give them a toothbrush to take to school and remind them to swish with water after lunch).

Your child should be careful about eating certain foods.

Most foods are fine, but avoid anything that’s particularly hard or sticky such as peanuts or caramel, says Bray. Food that’s extra crunchy, like apples or raw carrots, should be sliced, rather than bitten or eaten in chunks. Cut food like sandwiches and pizza into bite-size pieces. Skip the stuff that’s almost guaranteed to wreak havoc such as chewing ice or eating pretzels or crusty bread. But remember, it’s not the end of the world if a bracket or wire gets dislodged. “We know accidents happen, and can repair the damage,” says Bray.

Your child can still play sports.

The most important issue is making sure your child's protected. “We absolutely stress that your child wears a mouthguard for sports,” says Bray. Most boil-and-bite types are fine, or your orthodontist can customize one.

The whole process may take about two years.

Good things don’t happen overnight; your child will likely wear braces for up to 22 months. It depends on the severity of the problem, how well your kid follows the treatment plan (like wearing rubber bands) and how quickly the teeth move. “We know some kids are genetically ‘fast tooth movers' and some aren’t. But there’s no way to tell ahead of time, so we evaluate regularly whether we’re behind or ahead of schedule,” says Larson. Some kids also need to wear a removable retainer for six months or more after braces are removed.

Overall, your kids will likely adjust without too much discomfort thanks to new materials, smaller, more rounded brackets and better design. These aren’t the braces you had as a kid. Says Bray: “We’ve come a long way since you wore them.”

Arricca Elin SanSone is a New York-based health and lifestyle writer.

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