A Parent’s Guide to Dental Expanders for Children

The American Association of Orthodontists recommends all children see an orthodontist for a consultation by age seven. Seeing an orthodontist early on can help identify potential issues that could require braces or other treatment in the future. Sometimes, early intervention also means that a treatment like a dental expander for a child can prevent future orthodontic treatment to correct bite problems, impacted teeth, crowding, and more.

Young boy smiles during a visit to the orthodontist.

The team at Newtown Orthodontics is committed to the least invasive treatments possible to achieve beautiful smiles. Many young patients benefit from dental expanders, also known as palatal expanders or orthodontic expanders. Because parents are our partners in this treatment, we want to share the basics, including how they work, how they need to be adjusted, and what else you can expect.

What is a Dental Expander?

A dental expander is a metal appliance used for expanding the upper jaw. It helps reduce problems created by the roof of the mouth being too narrow. For instance, a narrow palate prevents the upper and lower jaw from aligning properly. This creates a crossbite, where the upper teeth are inside the lower teeth.

An orthodontist adjusts a young patient’s dental expander during an office visit.

In young children, the palatal bones are connected by a growth plate, called a suture. Dental expanders for children work by pushing the two halves of the jaw outwards. As they spread, new bone grows in place of the growth plate. The process, called palatal expansion, creates space for adult teeth and corrects alignment problems. Sometimes, the procedure precedes other orthodontics, like braces.

Dental expanders are only used in children because the growth plate disappears by adolescence, and the bones can no longer be easily separated. Correcting a narrow palate in childhood can help prevent abnormal wear on the teeth, future bite problems, and in some cases, the need for surgery as an adult.

How Dental Expanders Are Installed

A dental expander is a custom-made device. The most common type is a hyrax, which has two halves connected in the middle by a screw. The screw is turned using a key, pushing the two halves of the palate apart. With each adjustment, the two sides apply pressure to the palatal bones to reposition them.

The device is secured by rings that fit over several upper back teeth. The rings are glued onto the teeth to keep them in place. Some orthodontists offer removable dental expanders, which work like a retainer. These are less common since they require more time, and children are less likely to wear them as consistently as they should.

How to Turn a Dental Expander for a Child

Once in place, dental expanders gradually separate the bones in the palate. They need frequent adjusting as part of the process. Your orthodontist will provide a specific schedule and instructions, but you can expect to adjust your child’s expander every few days. Some children have their expanders adjusted daily.

Adjusting a palatal expander only takes a few minutes. To complete the process:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Insert the special key that your orthodontist provided into the topmost visible hole in the expander. The key is fully inserted when the bend is no longer visible.
  • Gently apply pressure to turn the key in the direction of the arrow on the expander. Turn the key 90 degrees, which turns the screw between the halves, until the key meets the back of the expander and a new hole is visible.
  • Remove the key by pushing it down toward the tongue.


Most children only need adjustments for a few weeks. However, once the expander has reached its full width, it remains in place for up to six months to allow new bone to form. Removing a dental expander too soon can cause the bones to return to their original position.

Dental Care While Wearing an Expander

An orthodontist shows a young girl how a dental expander works.One of the first questions that our patients (and their parents) ask about dental expanders is, “Will it hurt?”

Most kids find that wearing the expander isn’t too painful. It’s normal to feel some pressure between their eyes and at the top of the nose during the adjustment phase. An over-the-counter pain reliever can help with the discomfort. Otherwise, a palatal expander shouldn’t cause too much discomfort.

Good oral hygiene is vital while wearing a dental expander. Daily brushing and flossing help prevent tooth decay and gum infections that can cause pain and swelling. Kids should also avoid hard or sticky foods while the expander is in place, as they can damage the device. Nuts and popcorn are also on the list to avoid, as pieces can get caught in the expander and cause infection.

Orthodontics at Newtown Dentistry

The orthodontists at Newtown Dentistry encourage parents to schedule an orthodontic consultation for their children by age seven. If your child hasn’t seen an orthodontist yet, that’s okay. The sooner you have an evaluation, though, the sooner any necessary treatment — including a dental expander – can begin.

To schedule a complimentary orthodontic consultation, contact us here. We are always accepting new patients, and are happy to answer any questions about orthodontic treatments.

  • AUTHOR

    Newtown Dentistry

  • DATE

    April 5, 2022

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