For all of us who have gone through orthodontic treatment – whether as teens or adults – there’s few things more freeing than the day the braces come off. A healthy, straight smile is the reward at the end of the road, but for many orthodontic patients, the road isn’t over just yet. In fact, most patients will need to maintain their smile for months or even years to come with the help of a retainer. And while some adults still struggle with regular retainer wear, it’s teens who have the biggest struggle when it comes to compliance.
So, what’s a parent to do? First, educate yourself and your teen on what a retainer is, how it works, and why they should do their best to maintain compliance so they can enjoy a healthy, beautiful smile for life. Often, being transparent about the consequences of not wearing their retainer can go a long way towards maintaining compliance and proper care so they can enjoy their smile the rest of their life – without another round of orthodontics!
What is a retainer?
Retainers are most commonly divided into two categories – fixed and removable retainers. Both kinds of retainers have the same job – keeping your teeth in place post-orthodontic treatment so teeth don’t shift back to their original places.
A fixed retainer is a small metal bar that the orthodontist cements to the inner arch of the teeth to keep them secure. A fixed retainer requires special attention while brushing, and flossing is a necessity (as it should be for everyone – braces or not!). The flossing needed for fixed retainers is at least similar to how your teen would have flossed when they had braces on.
A removable retainer, often either a clear plastic aligner or a brightly colored piece of acrylic with wires (called a Hawley retainer), is most commonly worn by patients after treatment. While they’re called removable retainers, the retainer should only be removed for eating, drinking, and dental hygiene. Removable retainers have special care needs to keep them clean and sanitary, and we’ll cover that below.
How do retainers work?
Retainers are molded to match the final stage of orthodontic treatment, and will help keep teeth in place now that the braces have been removed. Because orthodontic treatment works by exerting constant, steady pressure to move teeth into place, it’s natural for teeth to want to shift back into their original positions without that force to keep them in place. Retainers will hold the teeth steady while they get used to their final position.
Why should orthodontic patients wear their retainers?
- Teeth Will Move Without It. The roots of our teeth shift without a retainer to maintain the bite, steadily undoing months or even years of orthodontic treatment.
- Skipping Days Will Hurt. The longer your teen goes without their retainer, the more uncomfortable it will be when it’s time to put it back in. It’s easy to get discouraged when this happens, which is why regular wear is important to keep them comfortable and their teeth secure. Over the counter pain medications like ibuprofen can help ease the soreness and discomfort that comes from skipped days.
- Their Teeth Will Be Healthier. Straight teeth are typically healthy teeth because they are easier to care for, while crooked teeth give plaque, tartar, and debris places to hide and can create cavities in hard-to-reach places.
- Orthodontic Treatment is an Investment. Even if your insurance covered part or all of your teen’s orthodontic treatment, they shouldn’t let it go to waste by failing to wear a retainer as instructed. While extreme, some parents will make (or even just threaten) their teens to pay back a portion of their orthodontic treatment if they continue to fail at wearing their retainer.
Retainer Care and Maintenance
Retainers require quite a bit of care to keep them looking good and functioning well. The most important lesson you can impart on your teen is that if their retainer isn’t in their mouth, it should be in its case. In addition, the only time their retainer shouldn’t be in their mouth is when they’re eating, drinking (except for water), or cleaning their retainer. Because retainers are only plastic, they can’t handle the pressure our jaws exert while chewing, so it’s important not to eat with them in.
Cleaning removable retainers is pretty straightforward – dedicate a spare toothbrush for retainer cleaning, and brush it in the morning and then again at bedtime. Rinse off the retainer with water before putting in its case to rid it of saliva, or invest in an antibacterial case to keep it clean. Depending on the material of your teen’s retainer, your teen’s orthodontist will recommend the cleaning products that are most effective, as some can be cleaned with toothpaste and others with dish soap.
It’s also important for your teen to keep a travel toothbrush and toothpaste with them, so they can brush after every meal. If they skip brushing at lunch and put their retainers back in, they’re creating a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, plaque, and leftover food particles to hang out in until bedtime. You can tell when your teen has neglected to clean their retainer, as it becomes foggy and can even smell awful. If brushing the retainer isn’t doing enough, plan to soak it in a rinse made specifically for cleaning retainers.
Losing or damaging a retainer can be a costly mistake, so your teen should keep up with their retainer and case at all times. Countless retainers have met their end because they were wrapped in a napkin and thrown away, forgotten on a cafeteria lunch tray, or because the dog chewed it up. (That last one happens way more than you’d think, too!)
Retainers Aren’t Forever
We know that the call of appliance-free living is strong, especially after years in braces, but accepting a retainer as part of your teen’s new normal is a necessity. If your teen is having a particularly difficult time with compliance, remind them that retainers aren’t forever.
While every patient is different, most orthodontists instruct their patients to wear their retainers 24/7 for several months, and gradually move to nighttime only wear. Your teen’s orthodontist will explain how long retainers should be worn and the more compliant they are, the sooner than can enjoy their smile retainer-free. Regular retainer checks with your teen’s orthodontist will also help to track progress and crush goals to set your teen up for a healthy, beautiful smile that can truly last a lifetime.