The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) recommends that all children get a checkup with an orthodontist no later than age 7 -- even if their pearly whites look straight to your untrained eye.
"That's typically when most kids have a mix of adult and baby teeth that would help an orthodontist determine how things will develop once all the adult teeth have come in," explains Dr. Michael Hahn, national dental director for CIGNA. "Even though teeth may appear straight, there may be other issues that an orthodontist would recognize -- such as a poor relationship between the teeth in the upper and lower jaws."
San Diego dentist Dr. Kami Hoss, DDS concurs. He says that, by 7 years old, the first adult molars will generally have broken through, and the orthodontist will be able to get a sense of the child's backbite.
There isn't much parents need to do to prepare for their first visit. Your family dentist may have some tips on where to go (and you should check with your insurance carrier for an estimate on what will be covered) and will make a recommendation if a trip is necessary before the age 7 marker.
The typical first exam may include X-rays, photographs and impressions -- which are casts of your child's teeth. The orthodontist will also evaluate your child's front-to-back and side-to-side tooth relationships -- both keys to an overall healthy mouth.
"For example, the presence of erupting incisors can indicate possible overbite, open bite, crowding or gummy smiles," says Dr. Hoss. "Timely screening increases the chances for an incredible smile for your child."
But even that timely screening can't put off the inevitable. Although good dental hygiene -- including twice-daily brushing as recommended by the American Dental Association, wearing mouth guards during sports and eating a healthy diet -- makes a difference in a child's health, many of the problems that land a child in the orthodontist's chair are genetic.
The good news is that seeking earlier treatment can improve your chances of addressing problems earlier and possibly reducing the amount of dental work your kids will have to go through, improving their health and overall comfort level. And considering orthodontic care can cost anywhere from in the hundreds of dollars to well over $7,000, being proactive can be the key to cutting your costs in the long term.
"Prudent intervention guides growth and development, preventing serious problems later," says Dr. Hoss. "When orthodontic intervention is necessary, an orthodontist can carefully monitor growth and development and begin treatment when it is ideal for your child."
That treatment, of course, will depend on your child's particular issues. Although braces are most commonly identified as an orthodontist's tools of the trade, he can use other devices in younger patients to correct harmful habits and bad bites, fending off the need for braces down the line.
"Unfortunately, if a child truly needs orthodontic treatment, then avoiding or delaying the treatment may only make the treatment more difficult and costly in the future," says Dr. Hahn. "Parents should consult with an orthodontist to determine the benefits of treatment and the risks of not treating their child, and then decide the best course of action."
Think your child might be at a special risk for orthodontic care? The AAO urges you to schedule an appointment with an orthodontist if your child has any of the following problems:
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