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Orthodontic treatments have come a long way since we were kids, thanks to new materials and improved designs. “Braces are totally different from what parents wore a generation ago,” says Chris Roberts, DDS, president-elect of the American Association of Orthodontists. “They’re more technologically advanced. For example, the wires are heat activated to move teeth with lighter forces.” Here’s what else you should know.

BRACES AREN’T JUST COSMETIC

Yes, braces straighten teeth, but they also correct your child’s bite (think crowding or overbites). “Braces have more to do with how the bite fits together to chew and function properly,” says Roberts. “If teeth don’t come together correctly, they can wear differently, and biting, chewing and speaking can be affected.”

THEY’RE UNCOMFORTABLE—BUT ONLY FOR A FEW DAYS

“It typically takes a few days for your cheeks and lips to get used to the feeling of wearing braces, and your teeth may be achy for the first day or two,” says Roberts. “I tell kids it’s like running barefoot outside on the first warm days. At first, your feet are tender. Then you get used to it.” Acetaminophen or ibuprofen (or whatever your kid usually takes for a headache) will help.

THERE’S NO PERFECT AGE TO START WEARING THEM

Orthodontists prefer to see kids by age 7 to identify issues early on, but anyone can be evaluated. “It’s never too late to be seen,” says Karen Reisner, DDS, author of Thumbs Up for Thumbs Out: An Orthodontist’s Guide for Parents of Thumb Suckers and an orthodontist in private practice in Cresskill. “Every case is different, and we have many different treatment options, including clear aligners, available now.” Although it depends on the specific issues, many kids begin wearing braces sometime between ages 9 to 11. But teens and adults can benefit from braces, too.

THEY’RE MORE AFFORDABLE THAN YOU THINK

Many parents worry about how they’ll pay for braces. The good news is that most dental insurance covers at least a portion. Plus, many offices offer no-interest payment plans or third-party financing options.

SOME FOODS HAVE TO BE AVOIDED (OR EATEN WITH CARE)

“Hard, sticky or chewy candies should be avoided completely. And popcorn is the worst,” says Reisner. “The kernels are very sneaky and can get under braces and cause infections.” Apples, carrots, sandwiches and pizza (don’t eat the hard crusts!) should be cut into bite-sized pieces, not bitten into whole.

YOUR CHILD NEEDS TO SEE HIS REGULAR DENTIST, TOO

Routine cleanings and checkups are essential, but you should also ask your child’s dentist if more frequent professional cleanings would be beneficial. “The challenge with braces is keeping them clean,” says Roberts. “Remind your child to brush after every meal, and that means taking a toothbrush to school for after lunch.” Ask your orthodontist about flossers and special toothbrushes that fit around brackets more readily.

YOUR CHILD CAN STILL GO ABOUT HIS ROUTINE

Braces won’t prevent your child from playing sports or a musical instrument. For any sport, a custom-fitted mouthguard should be worn. Boil-and-bite types are fine (look for those that say specific for orthodontics), or your dentist or orthodontist can make one. For musicians, brace protectors made of silicone or wax can smooth over braces when playing an instrument, says Reisner.

RESULTS TAKE TIME

There’s no way to tell exactly how long treatment will take because it varies based on how quickly your child’s jaw is growing and how well your child follows the treatment plan (such as wearing rubber bands), says Roberts, but most kids need them for about two years. And although two years may sound like a lifetime to them, remind them that good things don’t happen overnight.

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