From Cradle to Adolescence: The Transformative Years
A smile is something that people notice about you from your earliest moments. Who doesn’t love to see a happy, smiling baby? But the gummy-mouthed cuteness of an infant can quickly be changed as the teething process begins.
Many parents are shocked to find out that the expectation of dental care begins as soon as their little one cuts their first teeth. Strangely, western society has seemingly overlooked this important aspect of the health and well-being of a child in the sense that it is not stressed as highly to new parents as, say, vaccinations or regular pediatric check-ups. However, it is during the early stages of childhood that a person’s smile will develop–and is at its most correctable.
That is not to say that every child will need extensive dental care, a high number of fillings, etc. Pediatric dentistry is a godsend and many children develop healthy teeth that are ultimately replaced by their adult versions and they have nary a health concern over them for the duration of their lives, with proper biannual checkups.
However, some kids are not so lucky–and through a combination of genetics, diet, and/or reluctance to remove loose baby teeth–necessitate some help in achieving that “million-dollar smile.”
What Exactly are We Talking About?
This is not related to periodontics, rather, we are focusing on the issues caused by things such as crowding, misaligned teeth, or even extra teeth that a child may have naturally been born with (interestingly, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was born with four extra incisors, but famously resisted orthodontic treatment as he said he feared it would reduce his vocal range).
Assuming your child is not putting off orthodontic treatment to preserve a four-octave vocal range, what are the steps in the process to helping them correct some of the issues that were mentioned above?
The Road to a Happy Smile
First and foremost, if your child is seen regularly by a pediatric dentist, job one is covered. A pediatric dentist is able to build a rapport and watch your child’s development over time (as with anything, early treatment in correcting misaligned teeth is the key) and may be able to perform some orthodontic procedures. However, if the pediatric dentist decides that a case is “above their pay grade,” they may set up a referral to an orthodontist.
A What Now?
An orthodontist is a dental specialist who focuses on the problems caused by misaligned teeth. Interestingly, this is not a new profession, as dental practitioners have been working to fix and straighten smiles as far back as the 1800s. As one would expect, the field has evolved considerably from these roots.
An orthodontist will be able to look at the child’s mouth, teeth, and x-rays to determine the proper treatment protocols. For some, this may mean the removal of straggling baby teeth, or the aforementioned extra teeth (checking with your child to see if they have the aforementioned vocal range is optional before doing this). In some cases, the orthodontist may be able to confirm an absence of adult teeth through x-ray and proactively take steps to close any gaps that this may cause in the developing mouth. In any event, the treatment protocol begins with the initial visit. This can all help to avoid an orthodontic emergency.
Can’t My Kid Just Have Surgery?
Can’t my kid just have surgery to fix any misaligned teeth? The answer is usually “no.” The teeth themselves will need to be moved to their new positions in the mouth over an extended period of time. Surgical options are really limited to the removal of teeth as part of this process, so unless the desire is for your child to get the immediate perfection of a full set of dentures, there is not a surgical option that currently allows for instant correction of misaligned teeth.
But that does not mean that the only options facing a parent and their child in the quest to fix their smiles is the old-fashioned headgear of years past, or even the glued-on, metal-bracket braces that we are all familiar with. Yes, the bracketed braces are a traditional choice and they are certainly tried and true. A patient undergoing this treatment protocol should expect at least six months, but up to three years, of total treatment time (in rare exceptions this time period has to be expanded upon). The patient will see the orthodontist regularly (usually every four-to-six weeks) for an examination and adjustment of the braces themselves. This will result in occasional discomfort as the teeth are slowly moved into their new, permanent locations within the mouth. Additionally, today’s dental professionals can also assess the developing alignment to determine if a removable aligner would achieve the same results without the need for glue-and-brackets.
Can’t We Go Any Faster?
For many, the prospect of a 12-year-old signing up for a three-year treatment protocol is daunting. Sure, it’s seemingly a right of passage that many young men and women face, but is it really worth investing what will be the equivalent of 1/4 of the child’s life up to that point just to straighten their teeth? Yes. Unequivocally, yes. The 12-year-old’s experience with braces or aligners will be exponentially shorter, less painful, and more retainable because of the still-developing bone structure of their skull. If the process is put off, for whatever reason, until adulthood, it becomes increasingly difficult (but not impossible) to reach the desired effect. And with today’s methods, there are a number of advanced orthodontics (oscillating stimulators, for one) that can dramatically decrease the treatment time for the patient.
And in the End…
And after all is said and done, the removal of braces or the completion of an aligner treatment protocol is an achievement. The right of passage, as with anything, is symbolized with the presentation of a reminder of the endurance the patient showed in treatment–and in the orthodontic world, this is symbolized by the retainer. Yes, once the braces or aligners are no longer needed, a patient will be given a device to be worn (at the orthodontist’s direction) for certain time periods to maintain the new smile. And after all, what good would be going through the treatment if only to lose it by not wearing the retainer afterward?
It’s a straightforward process. If this dentist recommends orthodontic referral, make it a priority, because early treatment is better. And finally–wear your retainer!