How Young Is Too Young for the Orthodontist?

Graduating from high school in the late 90s meant that I came of age during the era of grunge and Friends. It also meant that, come senior portrait time, I was sporting The Rachel. This was not because it was flattering to my face shape, but because every hair dresser on the planet gave it to you whether you asked for it or not. It also meant that I was “too cool” to wear makeup. As if these two factors alone didn’t guarantee an unfortunate senior portrait, the fact that I had braces sealed the deal. Yes, I visited the orthodontist at the age of 17. In the 90s, visiting the orthodontist into your teenage years was pretty typical. This is a fate my children may never know. After my 7-year-old daughter’s most recent visit to the orthodontist, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

90s Senior Portrait
This is a picture taken of my senior yearbook page. Because my mom didn’t have a copy of this picture in her home. Enough said.

Six months ago, when our family dentist told us that he was going to refer my then 6-year-old daughter to an orthodontist, I thought that maybe there was a nitrous tank leaking in his office. After asking around the schoolyard, I discovered that this is now common practice. Apparently, orthodontists can create a picture perfect smile that will last your child a lifetime, even when your kid is still rocking baby teeth. Well, they at least want to can start the process. I had my doubts, but since I cannot say no to anyone, I made an appointment with the orthodontist. You know, because who knows what that nitrous sniffing dentist would think of me otherwise.

Our first trip to the orthodontist was tons of fun – if your idea of fun involves laying on a dental chair with a frantic child writhing on top of you. My daughter, who has typically done well at the dentist, was terrified of the orthodontist. I’d like to think she was shown a copy of our bill and was protesting in outrage, but I kind of just think she enjoys inflicting physical and emotional pain upon her mother. My daughter would only agree to open her mouth for the orthodontist if she was on my lap. Have you ever sat in a dentist’s chair and hugged a child at the same time? The strain on your neck makes tipping your head back at a salon sink feel like a hot stone massage.

This practice continued for every visit. And those were just consults to look inside her mouth and get her “comfortable in the office.” At her latest appointment, she had to get impressions. She reacted as if we told her we’d be pulling all of her teeth and she’d be eating porridge and gruel the rest of her days. She sobbed hysterically as the hygienist, orthodontist, and I all tried to reassure her that nothing would hurt. I laid there on the chair sweating, getting neck cramps, and wondering whether I’d plucked my chin hairs recently as the orthodontist’s light shined down on my exasperated face. I put my mom through some business when I was younger, but I guarantee she didn’t have to go through this when I got braces.

So why was I doing this? Does it really make a difference physically to get braces at age 7 instead of 12? Are fourth graders not allowed to have wonky teeth anymore? I get not wanting to have braces in high school (believe me, I do), but why isn’t middle school good enough? Aren’t our awkward years the ones when we learn to develop our character? I’d like to think that if I’d had straight teeth in high school that I’d have the personality of a wet blanket. Who needs to make jokes when you have a dazzling smile to win people over? Moreover, are these early trips to the orthodontist simultaneously causing my child emotional turmoil while also depriving her of her character building awkward years?

We were told my daughter needs an expander and braces now, and again in five years. This first go round will make the final one more efficient. In my meeting with the orthodontist, I should have been focusing on words like, “prevent having to pull teeth” or “super easy process at 12.” Instead I was perseverating on the “key” I was supposed to use to stretch the expander on the roof of my daughter’s mouth each week. The mouth of my stubborn child who I imagined holing up in her room to wire her jaw shut in protest. Don’t believe me? You should have seen the jaw strength on this one at her last appointment. She even wrote me an unsolicited apology note that was discreetly left on my bed later that night.

kid apology note
Maybe if your kid can’t spell orthodontist (or picture), they’re too young for braces. PS: I never got that pecher.

This last trip to the orthodontist has made me question today’s new orthodontic practices. Are 7-year-old’s ready to maintain a mouthful of expensive orthodontics? If my kid freaks out over impressions, what is she going to do when she experiences mouth soreness after a tightening, or, worse yet, the sharp pain of a broken bracket? When I experienced these discomforts, I was old enough to appreciate the “no pain, no gain” mantra. I was willing to do whatever it took to attain the end product – a straight smile. My kid is going into second grade. In a world where  jack-o-lantern smiles are celebrated, she has zero interest in having straight teeth. Basically, there is no incentive for little ones to appreciate or care for their orthodontics. So why bother?

I made an appointment for my daughter to start this process – you didn’t expect me to say no in person, did you? But I am having second thoughts. Surely someone so young and terrified can wait just a few years? Perhaps we can all agree that she’s still got a few cute years left in the yearbook and her 7th grade class picture should be the most awkward. Never fear though, we’ll make sure her senior portrait is memorable for one thing and one thing only – a bad haircut.