Braces for Kids: How Young Is Too Young?

Much like waking up to your first zit or (for girls) getting your period, being fitted with a mouth full of metal used to be a sign of becoming a teenager. So why are braces now all the rage in elementary schools?

Given how much pressure even young kids feel to look selfie-ready, it's easy to presume getting braces early on is because an imperfect smile is just embarrassing. But in fact, "most young children are started in braces to prevent more drastic problems later," says DeWayne McCamish, DDS, an orthodontist in Tennessee and secretary-treasurer of the American Assocation of Orthodontists. "There should always be a distinct purpose for doing it -- not because a parent doesn't like their child's smile."

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Typically, your child's permanent teeth start to come in between ages 6 to 8, so that's when issues become apparent, says McCamish. (Although some issues are caused by habits like thumb sucking, your genes are mostly to blame.)

Maybe your child has crooked or overcrowded teeth. Or he could have an underbite (in which the lower jaw is bigger than the upper jaw) or an overbite, in which the opposite is true: the upper jaw is longer than the lower.

In the past, sure, some orthos waited until middle or even high school to treat these conditions, but it's a good thing you're now seeing even first graders fiddling with their rubber bands in the school cafeteria.

Thanks to advances in wire and application technology (read: braces stuff), "orthodontics keeps evolving," says McCamish. "Twenty years ago, we still recognized growth and development issues. We just didn't have ways to treat them. It was like driving an old car that used to get 10 to 11 mph. Now, some cars get up to 40 or 50. Things change with time."

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Orthodontists will suggest braces in young patients for two reasons. One, if early treatment will reduce problems in the future. For instance, there's good evidence that treating a severe underbite before puberty kicks in around age 11 significantly improves facial, skeletal, and bite problems later on.

The second reason an orthodontist might decide the time is right for braces? If a child's teeth are "significantly affecting the overall development of his psyche," says McCamish. Think of a child whose teeth stick out -- a lot -- and who endures constant teasing because of it.

"It's up to your orthodontist to tell you if something really needs to be done or doesn't," McCamish says. "If you're not convinced, get a second opinion."

If a dentist sees braces in your child's future, they may recommend a visit to the orthodontist before age 8. But are kids that young really mature enough to handle, say, gooey plaster in their mouth while a mold is made, or endure having the wires of their braces tightened every few weeks?

"There might be soreness, but no excessive pain," assures McCamish. "Plus, orthodontists who work with children know how to work quickly." (A good rule of thumb: get a word of mouth recommendation from another mom.)

Some kids might even think that today's choices of multi-colored rubberbands are fun or at least that braces that affix behind the teeth aren't so bad.

Unfortunately, we parents will still be in sticker shock: Braces can run up to $6,000. Just keep reminding yourself: "You're giving your child a healthy, beautiful smile," says McCamish, "that will last for the rest of his life."

Do you think kids are getting braces too young?


Image © iStock.com/JBryson

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