Does your 7-year-old really need braces?

Maybe not, but an early checkup can head off problems before they get worse


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Braces are often a rite of passage for middle school students with overbites or crooked teeth. But the oral problems those braces are solving likely started way back in elementary school — possibly as early as first or second grade.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the American Association of Orthodontists recommends children make their first visit to an orthodontist no later than age 7.

“That doesn’t mean they are going to get braces,” says Dr. Jamie Reynolds, an orthodontist, national and international lecturer and author of “World Class Smiles Made in Detroit." “In fact, it’s pretty unusual to put braces on a child that young.”

“Usually, orthodontists offer complimentary exams so it really is a good idea to have your child checked out by an orthodontist at age 7,” Reynolds says. “The odds are that no treatment will be necessary. But if problems are starting to develop, early detection could make a big difference.”

But with those early visits, the orthodontist might be able to head off problems before they get worse. Reynolds says these are a few of the things an orthodontist would be checking with your child:

Are the jaws growing properly? You would think the upper jaw and the lower jaw grow pretty much in tandem, but you would be wrong. The upper jaw stops growing around age 8 while the lower jaw keeps on growing like the rest of the body. That means orthodontists can spot problems with the upper jaw earlier and recommend treatment if it’s needed, Reynolds says.

Enough room for growing teeth? Sometimes permanent teeth don’t have enough room to grow in properly, possibly because a baby tooth is in the way. Generally, baby teeth fall out on their own, but occasionally a stubborn one needs to be pulled so that the permanent tooth doesn’t start growing in an awkward direction and become impacted. “Removing a misbehaving baby tooth is often the simplest and best solution to a problem that could become much bigger,” Reynolds says.

Too few or too many teeth?One of the things an orthodontist would do when examining a young child is to make sure the correct number of permanent teeth are forming. Extra teeth can be removed, but if a child is a tooth or two short the orthodontist will wait until all the permanent teeth are in before starting any treatment. “Before I went to dental school, I assumed everyone had the same number of teeth — 32,” Reynolds says. “But it’s not unusual at all to see people with missing teeth or with extra teeth.”

Does the child snore? Snoring is a potential sign of sleep apnea, a condition in which a person stops breathing while sleeping. It can cause serious health problems and has been diagnosed in children as early as 4 or 5 years old. One common and treatable type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, in which the airways become partially or completely blocked by the tongue or fatty tissues of the throat. An orthodontist can widen the child’s palate so the upper jaw expands, and that expands the nasal passages. It also provides more room for the tongue so it rests on the roof of the mouth and not the bottom.

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