While most people know it is never too late to start orthodontic care, most don't realize how important early evaluation can be! The American Association of Orthodontists are in agreement that children should have an initial evaluation at age 7. Why you ask, is early evaluation and possible treatment so important?
Orthodontic evaluation at an early age can benefit children in multiple ways, but keep in mind that early evaluation isn't always followed by early treatment. If orthodontic intervention will be needed, this is a way to monitor your child's growth pattern until it is time to start their treatment. This allows for the treatment plan to get the best results in the most efficient way, and to help prevent future problems.
All children develop differently, but in most kids adult molars will start to emerge around age six. At this point, we can evaluate the basic alignment of the teeth, and it may also be possible to determine if there is adequate room in the mouth for all the permanent teeth. If there is not, a plan of action can be developed.
Although most orthodontic treatment begins around the age of 9-14, there are some conditions that are much easier to treat if they are caught at an early age. This allows for the treatment to work with the child's natural growth process.
A severe cross bite, or a condition where the upper teeth close inside the lower teeth, is an example of a condition where early treatment can be beneficial. A device called a palatal expander can be used to widen the upper jaw. This treatment is especially effective when the jaw itself has not completely developed. If the problem is not treated at an early age, this could lead to a much more complicated treatment, or even oral surgery.
Severe crowding in another example of a problem that can benefit from an early treatment plan. When the jaws are too small to allow for all the permanent teeth, either a palatal expansion or tooth extraction may be recommended. This will help to allow the adult teeth to emerge from below the gums or (erupt) properly. If braces were required later, treatment time will normally be shorter and less complicated.
Other examples of conditions that benefit from early intervention are protruding teeth and a severe underbite. Protruding teeth can be more prone to chipping and fractures, while the severe underbite is caused by the lower jaw growing much larger than the upper jaw. Both conditions can lead to problems with a child's confidence. Early intervention can include orthodontic appliances, such as braces or headgear, and successfully correct these problems at an early age while the child's development is ongoing. This also increases the chance that surgery can be avoided later in life.
There are some situations where a child may have picked up a bad habit that is impacting the development and the function of their teeth, jaws or mouth. Persistent thumb sucking, mouth breathing, or even tongue thrusting may be examples of a bad habit that has developed over time.
Sucking is a natural reflex in young children, however, it will typically disappear between the ages of 2 and 4. If this habit continues much later, the pressure caused by this action can make the teeth move apart and cause the jaw to change its shape. This can also lead to an orthodontic problem known as "open bite," which may impair the child's speech. Open bites are also caused by tongue thrusting, or pushing the tongue forward against the teeth.
Another condition that exist is mouth breath, or an abnormal breathing pattern where the mouth always remains open. This allows for air to pass directly to the lungs and is related to alterations in the muscular function of the face and even the tongue. Mouth breathing can lead to serious orthodontic problems such as, causing the upper and lower jaw to grow abnormally. Mouth breathing may start from a physical difficulty; however, it can quickly become a habit that is difficult to break.
The good news is there are various orthodontic treatments available to help correct these parafunctional (detrimental to health) habits. The sooner that they are evaluated and a treatment plan is developed, the less damage they are likely to cause. These potential problems can be hard to recognize, which is another reason why you should schedule an early orthodontic evaluation screening for your child.