A generation ago, braces were a cross that some unfortunate kids had to bear. ‘Metalmouth’ was an insult, and kids who wore the dreaded ‘headgear’ were doubly cursed. All that has changed. For many of today’s youngsters, braces are a fashion statement and a rite of passage with little or no trauma attached. Modern braces address a variety of issues related to cosmetic and functional concerns. The age at which a child is fitted with braces depends largely upon the braces’ purpose.

“There are many, many reasons why a child would need orthodontic treatment,” says Dr. Andrew Frost, a St. Louis-area orthodontist. “The majority of kids should be treated when they have most of their adult teeth in, which is usually between the ages of 10 and 12. A small number of kids may need to have some treatment performed between the ages of 7 and 9 if they have a severe problem or a functional problem, which means they couldn’t chew properly, or their teeth couldn’t grow in properly, or when they bit down their jaw would deviate to one side.”

Dr. Nick Azar of Azar Orthodontics agrees that braces placed for cosmetic corrections should be introduced “right at the beginning of a growth spurt, most likely right before puberty hits. That’s ideal from a growth standpoint, and that’s how we can coordinate the top and bottom jaws and really get the maximum out of our treatment.”

While a mouth that is still growing may be an advantage, Azar notes that even adults can respond well to braces for straightening teeth.

“The length of orthodontic treatment typically has to do with many factors, and not always with age,” he adds. “Age can play a role, but we tend not to believe too strongly that an adult is going take longer than a child just because of age.”

The severity of the orthodontic issues when braces are first secured to the teeth is the most important factor in determining how long a child will need to wear them. Some treatments are complete within a year, but a majority of kids face a one-and- a-half to two-year process.

No matter how long the child wears them, these are not your parents’ braces— or even your braces, if you wore them as a child and now have adolescents of your own. “The main difference is that the braces themselves are bonded onto the teeth as opposed to fitted and going around the teeth, which was the old way,” Frost says. “Each tooth had to have what’s called a band around it, and those took up space between the teeth so many more kids had to have teeth removed and it was much harder to put (braces) on and much more painful.” More flexible wires between brackets also increase comfort for today’s kids.

In fact, Frost says that his young patients are often surprised that their new braces aren’t more uncomfortable. “The vast majority of kids report that it’s no big deal at all,” he says.

Adjusting to your Braces

Although getting braces is no longer the ordeal it was a generation ago, kids (and adults) still need to adjust to the hardware in their mouth. Drs. Andrew Frost and Nick Azar, both local orthodontists, shared some tips for getting used to and taking care of braces.

• Teeth and gums may feel a bit sore when braces are first placed. Over-the-counter pain relievers, taken as directed, may help reduce discomfort.

• Be patient. You will notice the braces against your lips at first, but after a while, you will adjust to the sensation.