Brace Yourself: Orthodonist’s Visits at Age 7?

Meredith O’Brien

When my twins crossed the threshold of an orthodontist’s office for their very first consultation, they were 8 years old. Sure, I’d read the recommendations from dental experts urging parents to bring their children to see an orthodontist for an initial evaluation when they reach the tender age of 7. And I ignored them. “They’re just trying to separate me from my money,” I complained to my husband when the twins were 7, adding, “They just started losing baby teeth for God’s sake.”

Braces cost thousands of dollars. Braces for two kids simultaneously costs all that much more, so this whole orthodontist’s business isn’t child’s play. It’s an investment.

Gradually, the guilt that I wasn’t doing all I could for my children settled in. That guilt increased exponentially when an enterprising orthodontist visited my second graders’ school for “Dental Health Day.” Along with the fun literature he disseminated about making sure the children brush their teeth, he also sent home some handy dandy brochures telling parents that they’d best bring their offspring to an orthodontic consultation RIGHT NOW! . . . All right, the brochure didn’t scream, “right now” in capital letters and italics followed by an exclamation point. I’m exaggerating. It did make mention of how the kid should be seen at age 7. But when I realized my kids were now 8 and I had yet to bring them in, I was guilted into action. Despite my skepticism that this was nothing but a ploy for orthodontists to rake in some more dead presidents in order to buy the latest model BMW and hire a personal chef, I brought Abbey and Jonah for a consultation.

As soon as we entered the office, it immediately struck me that this place was distinctly unlike the orthodontists’ offices I’d seen as a kid, when my incisors were wedged high in my gums (imagine vampire teeth and you’re not far off) and I had to endure years of braces and tiny rubber bands in my mouth.

True, my orthodontist’s office was in a medical office building, like the one to which I was taking my kids. But the similarities ended there. I remember my orthodontist’s office as being darkly lit, having dark brown wood paneling on the walls and a color scheme comprised of two colors: Brown and off-white. By comparison, the office to which I brought my kids was in Technicolor. It had kid-friendly art, stuffed animals with braces and a flat-screen TV that got digital cable channels and could be tuned to “SpongeBob SquarePants.” When Jonah and Abbey were in an exam room waiting for the orthodontist, they both squeezed into a single dental chair in front of which was a TV whose remote was in their sweaty little hands.

After the exam, I was informed that they’d both need braces in a few years. The news became grimmer when the orthodontist told me that Abbey would immediately require a metal hinge (which resembled a medieval torture device) in her little mouth to help coax her jawbone to grow properly. Before I had a chance to give this course of treatment any serious thought, papers -- including financial papers detailing the price-tag (Can you say, “Ouch”? My wallet did.) - were put in front of me. Along with a pen.

This was too fast for me. I was just getting used to the idea that it’s now routine to bring a second grader to the orthodontist. And now they wanted me to authorize a hinge being slapped onto my daughter’s teeth after a 15-minute conversation? I told the orthodontist I’d have to mull this over and left.

A few weeks later, I consulted our family dentist about the medieval device recommendation. He urged me to get a second opinion and gave me another orthodontist’s name.

As with the first orthodontist’s office, the second one was similarly decorated in vibrant colors and was very kid-friendly. There was both a Play Station and a flat-screen TV in the waiting room. I girded myself for a high-pressured pitch and for my parental guilt to be triggered (“Don’t you want your daughter to grow up with a perfect smile? You could do something about it right now. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful gift to give her?”). But it never came. This orthodontist said he did see the problems the other orthodontist mentioned, but disagreed about placing the hinge in her mouth right away. He thought she was too young and still had too many baby teeth. We should wait before doing anything, he said. If we did anything later, he added, he wouldn’t suggest that metal hinge, and instead showed me other, less intrusive mechanisms he’d use to address my daughter’s situation. “Come back in six months and we’ll see how she’s doing,” he said. “Maybe the problem will resolve itself.”

When we got to the parking lot, I finally exhaled. I felt more comfortable with the second guy who was less aggressive and was willing to wait until my daughter’s body matured a bit more before messing around with her mouth.

It’s a tall order, trying to make the right call about everything in your child’s life. First you’ve got to select the child’s medical practitioners (pediatricians, dentists, orthodontists), chose what foods to feed your child, figure out when and to what schools your kid should attend, discern what extra curricular activities in which your child should participate, and when your son is mature enough to watch a “Harry Potter” flick.

Then things like braces and orthodontic work come along, things that are optional and oftentimes cosmetic, and aren’t life or death but will definitely have an impact on your child’s life. Unfortunately, our own orthodontic experiences decades ago are of little help in making a decision. As fellow Parents and Kids writer and pediatrician Dr. Gwenn, who’s brought her own kids to an orthodontist, told me: “The world of braces has changed a great deal from when we were kids and earlier intervention is the norm now, and with good medical/dental reasoning, so be open-minded. It sounds crazy, but there is something to this.”

Okay, I’m willing to concede that there is something to the notion of putting a child on an orthodontist’s radar screen early, that there is merit in trouble-shooting problems and in taking action while the child is growing. But since many of these early measures don’t necessarily prevent the eventual need for braces - thereby necessitating that we parents will have to pay for more treatments, on top of the cost of braces - you can’t blame me for being suspicious about the motives of some orthodontists.

The six-month wait that the second orthodontist prescribed is almost over. It’s nearly time for me to bring Abbey back for another assessment. And though I felt at ease with him, if I notice any brand new cars in his parking lot bearing bumper stickers saying, “Your kid’s braces paid for this. Sucka!” I am so outta there.

Meredith O’Brien is the author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum and can be found blogging about parenthood at her blog, suburbanmomnotes.blogspot.com, and writing about working moms and pop culture at Mommy Track’d.