How Palatal Expanders Can Improve Your Child’s Smile

Have you recently been told your child would benefit from a palatal expander? If so, you may be wondering what this appliance is and why it’s necessary for your child’s oral health. Even the name can sound a bit intimidating for someone unfamiliar with orthodontics, but that’s where we come!

At Orthodontic Specialists, our doctors have years of experience in guiding facial growth and development. They’re able to manage tooth movement and create healthier smiles using a variety of orthodontic appliances, including palatal expanders. Let’s take a look at how these work to improve your child’s smile!

What is a palatal expander?

A palatal expander is an orthodontic device designed to take advantage of the changes that occur as a child’s teeth and jaw develop. The upper jaw develops as two separate halves that don’t fully fuse until after puberty. Using a palatal expander, we can gently separate and stabilize each half during this period. This gradually widens the upper jaw by creating more space in the mouth.

How does a palatal expander work?

Palatal expanders are made of two pieces that connect in the middle with a screw. They fit over a few top teeth in the back of a child’s mouth and are activated by turning the screw in tiny increments each day with a special key. How often the screw is turned depends on several factors, including the type of expander being used, the age of the patient, and the expansion goals. However, the most common protocol is one turn a day up to a maximum number of turns.

Each time the expander is turned, the screw is opened one-quarter of a millimeter. This turning creates tension at the junction of the two palatal bones, gradually moving them apart. Treatment times vary from case to case, but most patients wear a palatal expander for around 9-12 months. Once the desired amount of expansion is achieved, the appliance will usually be kept in place for a few more months so that new bone can form in the gap and stabilize the expansion.

How Palatal Expanders Can Improve Your Child's Smile

Who is a good fit for a palatal expander?

Palatal expanders are often recommended when the upper jaw, or maxilla, is too narrow relative to the lower jaw. The upper jaw needs to fit outside the lower jaw to function appropriately. If the upper jaw is too narrow, the lower jaw won’t fit inside it. This can cause it to shift to one side in order to achieve a more comfortable bite, a condition commonly referred to as a functional crossbite.

If left untreated, a crossbites can result in facial asymmetry. This can be corrected by using palatal expansion to ensure the upper jaw is the correct size. After expansion, the lower jaw will swing back to a more central position. Treatment with a palatal expander can also help open the nasal and pharyngeal airway passages, allowing for increased tongue space and additional room for the erupting teeth.

It’s important to note that palatal expanders are a time-sensitive treatment, as they work with a child’s teeth and jaws as they grow. Fixing asymmetry issues after the jaw has stopped growing may require surgery or other invasive treatment. This is why we traditionally recommend this treatment between the ages of 7-14. Palatal expanders benefit children in this age range by:

  • reducing or eliminating overcrowding—expanders create space for all of a child’s upper teeth to erupt in the correct positions
  • reducing the risk of developing impacted teeth—when an unerupted tooth is blocked by other teeth, we can create room for it to emerge by widening the upper jaw
  • correcting a crossbite—the upper teeth should be able to close around the outside of the lower teeth, but a narrow palate can cause the upper teeth to bite inside the lower teeth. An expander can correct this before serious asymmetrical jaw growth occurs, restoring facial symmetry.

Using a palatal expander at the appropriate time can also improve the cosmetic appearance of a child’s smile, limit the need for tooth extraction later, and reduce the total treatment time if a child is eventually fitted for braces.

What are the different types of palatal expanders?

The type of palatal expander recommended for your child will depend on their age and specific needs. We have both fixed and removable options available, and each one is custom-made to complement the natural shape and size of a child’s palate. We’ll outline the most common types of palatal expanders below.

Rapid palatal expander

The rapid palatal expander, or RPE, is a standard expander. It has a center screw with four branches that are attached to the paralleled back teeth of the upper jaw. You’ll be provided with a small key to activate the center screw each day, turning it based on the guidelines provided. Over time, this will widen the palate to the desired size and shape.

Removable palatal expander

The removable palatal expander is also common when treating children. It’s often used in cases that need only a small amount of expansion. The device resembles a clear retainer but it also contains a center screw. This center screw works similarly to the RPE, requiring the same daily expansion for around 3-6 months.

Mini-implant assisted rapid palatal expander

If your child begins treatment at a young age, it’s unlikely they will need a mini-implant assisted rapid palatal expander (MARPE.) These are typically used for older teens and young adults who require more powerful pressure to reshape the palate.

A MARPE includes two to four mini-implants placed on parallel points of the palatal bones. There is also a center screw that works similarly to other palatal expanders, but instead of applying pressure to the teeth, it applies pressure directly to the palatal bones.

How Palatal Expanders Can Improve Your Child's Smile

Find your child’s best smile at Orthodontic Specialists

Children grow quickly, and their mouths are no exception! As the baby teeth fall out and the permanent ones begin to grow in, a great deal of shifting happens. This makes it easier for us to assess if there’s a misalignment or other issue present. Our team of experienced orthodontists can then recommend the appropriate treatment while the jaw and palate are still developing.

Your child deserves the happiest and healthiest smile possible! If you’re looking to improve their oral health with orthodontics, we’d love to meet you both and take a look at how their smile is developing. Get in touch today to schedule a FREE consultation with our Colerain, Eastgate, Florence, Hebron, Kenwood, Liberty Township, Oakley, or West Chester Township locations!