Ten Tips for Surviving Braces

The start of a perfect smile

3Po and Jammy have begun a rite of passage affecting teens and tweens all over the world. No, I'm not talking about their first crush (already happened). I'm not talking about smoking (never going to happen). I'm talking about braces. For the next 18-24 months they'll be visiting the orthodontist, craving popcorn, and slowly but surely, developing a killer smile. It's going to suck, and at times it's going to really suck, but the results will be worth it. I know, because I had braces myself.

braces headgear
The ultimate metal mouth. But please don't call me "metal mouth". That's bracist.

If good parenting requires empathy and understanding, then I just might be the ideal parent for a child with braces. I wore braces for four years. I wore headgear for two of those years. I wore retainers for 10 years after that. I've been through it all -- the pain, the sores, the missed appointments, the food cheating, the subsequent broken wires, and the ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation at the end of it. It's hard to imagine anyone else's life being transformed by braces as much as mine was. My overbite and Bugs Bunny front teeth were so bad, I couldn't close my mouth properly. Braces not only changed my teeth, they changed my entire face. They gave me confidence and changed the way I saw myself.

But now that 3Po and Jammy have their own metal mouths, I've realized that I'm by no means the parental authority on kids with braces. A lot has changed between the time I had braces (case in point: I've been told by Jammy that calling someone "metal mouth" is "bracist"). The technology is different. Their mouths are different, so the treatment plan is different. And I'm no longer the patient, I'm the parent, so my perspective is different. So a lot of this is new for me too.

We're just a few weeks into this journey, and I've already learned a lot. If you or your child is starting on the braces journey, here are a few survival tips that I've picked up, both from my own past experience and my experience as a parent of a child with braces:

1) You may have been told to expect some initial discomfort. Let me translate that for you -- it's going to hurt like hell for about a week! It's hard to describe the pain. It's like someone is constantly pushing against your mouth, so you're going around with a dull ache... until your teeth make contact with another surface (another tooth, your finger, the rim of a drinking glass). Then your mouth explodes with tingly pain. Expect this pain when you first get the braces, and every time they get tightened. It takes your mouth a few days to get used to it, but brace yourself for a miserable few days. Stock up on ibuprofen!

2) Chewing ice is not recommended because it can dislodge brackets and wires, but I used to suck an ice cube to numb the pain after a tightening appointment.

3) I had a ton of mouth sores during my first week of braces -- boy did that sting! The boys' ceramic brackets feel a lot less sharp than my metal ones did, but they still irritate the inner mouth. Orthodontic wax will help, and you can even find it in mint and cherry flavors.

4) Follow your ortho's recommendations for what to eat and what not to eat. Why risk breaking your bracket or wires, prolonging your treatment, and incurring extra expense? I told my boys they'd have to pay for any broken brackets ($35 each!). There are a ton of articles on the internet on this subject, so I won't bother listing it all here. I do have 2 special tips:
  • Regarding soft foods: mine all seem to start with "S". Soups, stews, shakes, smoothies, scrambled eggs. Oh, and yogurt.
  • Regarding chips: if it ends in an "O", don't eat it. CheetOs, DoritOs, FritOs, nachOs. Lays Potato Chips and Pringles are okay!
5) Don't use your front teeth to bite into anything. Cut your food (not just apples and pears, but also hamburgers, pizza, bagels, chicken nuggets, etc...) into bite-sized pieces and shove the pieces into the back of your mouth.

6) The boys got to choose the color of the rubber bands used to secure the archwire to the brackets.  If your child has ceramic (clear) brackets, choosing silver or clear bands will make the braces less conspicuous. If your child has metal brackets, choosing silver bands will make the braces less conspicuous. Of course, some kids like to choose different colors as a fashion statement, but avoid the color green, because it looks like food stuck between their teeth! The bands are changed during ortho visits, so they can change colors throughout the course of their treatment.
Ceramic brackets with colored bands.

7) Find a flossing method that works for you/your child. My kids hate regular floss, so I knew they would give up flossing completely if I made them use a floss threader. We tried Platypus Orthodontic Flossers and Plackers Orthopicks, but neither brand was thin enough to fit between the boys' braces. What's working for us is a combination of GUM soft picks (to clean in between teeth and braces) and gum stimulators (to run along the gumline and massage the gums).

8) Make on-the-go oral hygiene kits: fill small zippered bags with flossers, orthodontic wax, and a mirror. Put these in your child's school bag, lunch box, and soccer/dance/hockey/activity bag. Keep a kit in the glove compartment of your car. Remember to check and refill periodically!

9) Don't use whitening toothpaste. Think of tan lines: the portion of the tooth underneath the brackets is not being treated with the whitening toothpaste, so after 18-14 months when the braces come off, that area might be a lot whiter than the rest of the tooth!

10) It takes a few days to get used to braces -- not just the pain, but also the feel of having them in your mouth. Don't worry, you'll get used to it. In fact, when you finally get those braces off, it will take a while to get used to having brace-free teeth! You'll constantly be running your tongue along your teeth, marveling at how smooth and slimy everything feels. So if you're at the beginning of your orthodontic treatment (or your child is), take heart. Pain and discomfort are temporary, but your smile will last forever.... but only if you wear your retainers!!  Good luck!!

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