Every child needs to see an orthodontist at least once. This is what to expect at the first visit.

boy smiling
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As your child grows, her dentist will help keep her pearly whites clean and healthy. But as baby teeth make way for a permanent set, you may find that your child needs an orthodontist, a specialized dentist who is trained to align and straighten teeth.

How can you tell if your child needs orthodontic care? The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) recommends that all children get an orthodontic checkup no later than age 7. At that point, orthodontists can pick up on problems with the way the jaw is growing or the teeth are coming in -- even if your child is still sporting some baby teeth.

An orthodontic consult typically goes one of three ways: The doc says your child's bite is fine and sends her on her way; he spots a developing problem that he decides to monitor; or he finds an issue that is best served by early intervention. "Some orthodontic problems are treated most effectively by starting early, before all the permanent teeth have come in and while children still have a significant amount of growing to do," explains Edward H. Moody, Jr., D.D.S., vice president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and a board-certified pediatric dentist in Morristown, Tennessee.

It's tempting to skip the trip to an orthodontist if your child's teeth look straight, but don't, say the experts. "An orthodontist can detect issues or bad habits such as tongue-thrusting or mouth-breathing, things a parent wouldn't necessarily notice," says Lezli Levene Harvell, D.M.D., a board-certified pediatric dentist in Newark, New Jersey.

An orthodontist can give you the lowdown on your child's individual situation but, according to the AAO, these are some red flags that a child may be a candidate for orthodontic care:

  • Premature or delayed loss of baby teeth
  • Difficulty chewing or biting
  • Mouth breathing
  • Thumb sucking
  • Crowded, misplaced, or blocked-out teeth
  • Jaws that are too far forward or back
  • Biting the cheek or biting the roof of the mouth
  • Protruding teeth
  • Upper and lower teeth that don't meet, or meet in an abnormal way
  • An unbalanced facial appearance, such as when, say, the lower jaw is abnormally large or small and appears out of proportion to the rest of the face
  • Grinding or clenching of the teeth

Finding an orthodontist

"As with any healthcare provider for your child, choose someone who you have confidence in and who you can communicate with about your child's particular problems," says Dr. Moody. Your best bet: Ask other parents or your child's dentist for a recommendation or two. Also, know that it's perfectly acceptable to get more than one opinion on your child's care. After all, the orthodontist you choose will help shape your child's lifelong smile.

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