For most people who are now adults, orthodontics is something we heavily associate with adolescence. Except in extreme cases, people born before the turn of the century received little to no orthodontic care until they neared puberty. When we think of braces, we think of prom and chemistry class, not playgrounds and Dr. Seuss. That’s why I was startled when, at my six-year-old’s last dentist appointment, her dentist concluded the visit by pointing to two baby teeth on an X-ray and saying, “Once these come out in the next month or so, we’ll get her to an orthodontist.”
An orthodontist? Already? I knew her teeth were a little “off,” but I expected that I’d have nearly a decade before I’d need to worry about it. Times are changing, though, and most dentists recommend that children start receiving limited orthodontic care as soon as they have permanent teeth. In fact, the American Association of Orthodontists actually recommends an orthodontic check-up for all children starting at age seven.
I have to admit I was a little skeptical about how necessary early orthodontic care really is, so I did some research to find out why young children would need to see an orthodontist. I found out that early orthodontic care helps to prevent much bigger problems down the road, since some problems are easier to treat when the jaw is still growing rapidly. By seeing an orthodontist and starting treatment for overcrowded teeth or misalignment at seven, a child may be able to avoid much more invasive and painful treatments (such as surgery) later on. Appropriate interventions at an early age can make it so a child won’t have to undergo several years of surgery and braces in adolescence.
A 2004 report by Dr. David C. Page summarized the benefits of early orthodontic treatment: “Early orthodontics can save time, money, and pain for young patients and their parents.” He also note that there are psychological and social benefits to early orthodontic treatment. Many of us remember all too well how embarrassed we were by braces during the sensitive years of adolescence, or we recall feeling mildly traumatized by extensive and invasive dental surgeries to correct overcrowded teeth or misaligned bites. And, although “headgear” has been uncommon for decades and is generally worn only at home, it’s still prescribed for a select few children, and it’s less socially and emotionally upsetting when those children haven’t yet reached the age at which they’re self-conscious about their appearance. By getting lower-intervention care at an earlier age, children can avoid a lot of stigma and emotional discomfort.
It’s rare for children to need full-scale orthodontic treatment like braces and surgery at an early age, but, when those interventions are necessary, sooner is almost always better than later. Not only can it prevent a lot of pain and unnecessary intervention when your child is older, but it can save you a lot of money by preventing your kid from needing surgery or several years’ worth of braces in adolescence. While I don’t expect that my children are going to need any kind of extensive treatment early in childhood, a referral to an orthodontist can’t hurt and might help. I’d encourage any parent to have their kids seen by an orthodontist as soon as they have several permanent teeth, especially if a dentist has noticed problems.