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Parent's Guide to Palatal Expanders


Did you recently find out that your child or teenager needs a palate expander? If so, it’s completely natural to feel a little worried about your child’s jaw and facial development. Fortunately, you can rest assured that palatal expanders are a very common appliance. They are often used in phase 1 orthodontic treatment or as part of a comprehensive orthodontic treatment plan.


At Dr. Melanie Orthodontics, we use palate expanders all the time to help guide the proper development of our patients’ future smiles. Whether your child needs a palate expander (and how we’ll use it) depends on your child’s specific orthodontic needs and concerns. In this guide, we’ll answer all of your questions about palatal expanders, including:


  • What is a palate expander?
  • How does a palatal expander work?
  • Does a palate expander hurt?
  • Why does my child need a palate expander?
  • How to take care of a palate expander
  • How to incorporate a palate expander into your child’s orthodontic plan



What is a Palatal Expander?

A plastic model of teeth with palatal expanders installed

Dr. Melanie Orthodontics typically uses rapid palatal expanders.


A palatal expander (or palate expander) is a common part of early orthodontic treatment. It is typically used before getting braces to widen the roof of the upper jaw. Expanders work best for children and teens because their mouths and jaws are still growing, making it easier to guide ongoing development and make room for incoming permanent teeth. Using a palatal expander can also correct bite issues, such as crossbite, by bringing the upper and lower jaw into proper alignment. And an added benefit? In addition to creating a more functional and healthy bite, widening the jaw with a palatal expander can also create a broader and more aesthetically pleasing smile. At Dr. Melanie Orthodontics, we typically use rapid palatal expanders to address our patients’ orthodontic concerns.



How Does a Palate Expander Work?


We know it can be a little scary to think about widening your child’s jaw, but it’s a very simple and painless process. In order to understand how a palate expander works, it can be helpful to review the anatomy of the upper jaw. Also called the maxilla, the upper jaw has two separate halves that do not fully fuse together until adolescence. Using an expander before this happens allows us to gently widen the bones to broaden the palate. 


The expander itself is a stainless steel appliance that is custom-made for your child’s mouth. Your Rancho Santa Fe or San Diego orthodontist will bond the expander to several of the back upper teeth. Like the upper jaw, it has two sides that are connected in the middle by a small screw that is activated with a special key. Once or twice a day, you (the parent) will turn the key to apply gentle pressure to the upper molars and the junction of the two halves of the maxilla. This will cause the bones to widen, resulting in a broader palate. Once we have achieved the desired result, we’ll leave the expander in place long enough for the bones to stabilize in their new position.



Will a Palate Expander Hurt My Child?


Naturally, this is one of the first questions parents ask us. We want to assure you that using a palatal expander will not hurt your child. However, since it does apply pressure to the growing jaw bones, it can cause some mild discomfort, particularly during the first few days. We recommend giving your child liquid foods (like smoothies or soups) for one day and then switching to soft foods (like steamed vegetables or yogurt) until the discomfort subsides. This will be great practice for adjusting what your child can eat with braces!



Does My Child Really Need a Palatal Expander?


Now, you might be wondering if a palate expander is really necessary. Most people’s jaws develop with enough room to accommodate their adult teeth, so they have no need for an expander. But in some cases, the upper jaw is too narrow to fit correctly with the lower jaw, leading to alignment problems and crowding of the teeth. Here are the three most common reasons why your child or teen might need a palatal expander:


  • Crossbite: A crossbite is a condition that occurs when the upper jaw is too narrow for the bottom jaw, causing some of the bottom teeth to bite outside of the top teeth. Fortunately, with phase 1 orthodontic treatment, we can assess whether your child is on track for developing a crossbite. If left untreated, the patient may shift their jaw to one side to accommodate the improper bite, which can cause permanent and undesired changes to their facial appearance. They may also experience ongoing jaw and TMJ pain, or excessive wear and tear on the tooth enamel. The earlier we identify a crossbite, the easier it is to address it with a palate expander.
  • Crowding: If the upper jaw is too narrow, it commonly leads to severe crowding of the teeth. That’s why the American Association of Orthodontists recommends that all children visit an orthodontist by age 7. With an early orthodontic assessment, we can identify potential crowding issues before they happen and, if indicated, create more space with a palatal expander. This not only makes room for the teeth to come in, but reduces the risk for future tooth extractions.
  • Impacted Teeth: An impacted tooth occurs when an incoming permanent tooth gets blocked beneath the bone or tissue before it can erupt. This most commonly happens with the canine (or eye) teeth. With a palatal expander, we can make way for the impacted tooth to come through without the need for larger intervention or tooth extractions.


Outside of these orthodontic concerns, palate expanders are often used to correct underbites, breathing issues (such as sleep apnea) or to create a more aesthetically pleasing smile.



How to Care for a Palate Expander


Just like with all orthodontic appliances, oral hygiene is incredibly important with a palatal expander. You’ll need to support your child or teen to make sure they’re cleaning their expander properly. It’s super easy: your child will just need to gently brush the appliance (screw and metal bars included) just like they brush their teeth. They should brush in the morning, after meals and snacks, and before going to bed, just like they’ll need to do with braces.


Also similar to braces, there are foods to avoid with a palate expander. This includes any foods that are hard, chewy, sticky or crunchy, or foods they have to bite into. So no hard pizza crusts, caramels, licorice, or whole raw apples or carrots. Once again, this will be good practice if your child needs braces in the future!



How a Palate Expander Complements Orthodontic Treatment


A palate expander may be used as a standalone treatment or in conjunction with future orthodontic treatment, like braces or clear aligners. The expander works to correct orthopedic (or bone-related) issues, while braces or clear aligners focus on correcting tooth positioning. When used together, expanders and orthodontic treatment can guide the development of a healthy, beautiful smile that your child will be proud to show off.


At Dr. Melanie Orthodontics, we believe that prevention is always better than correction. Early orthodontics gives us the opportunity to identify, diagnose and prevent more serious orthodontic issues before they happen. So come visit us at our San Diego or Rancho Santa Fe orthodontics office to find out whether your child is a candidate for a palatal expander. We’ll walk you through your child’s diagnosis, and the process for adjusting and taking care of the expander, to make sure you feel informed and comfortable with your child’s treatment plan. Contact us today to book a complimentary consultation with Dr. Melanie.


Palatal Expander For Child

Dr. Melanie

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