Baby teeth aren’t meant to be permanent. They emerge from about the time a child is 6 months old until around their third birthday. But they already start to fall out around age 6.
Because they’re temporary placeholders for permanent teeth, issues with baby teeth may seem like no big deal. But baby teeth actually serve critical purposes.
Baby teeth are important for childhood development.
Healthy baby teeth help young children speak clearly, express emotions through smiling and chew properly. Missing or decayed teeth can make it difficult to eat certain foods.
They have an effect on permanent teeth.
Baby teeth hold space for adult teeth to grow into. Tooth decay or infection in baby teeth can cause pain and tooth loss. It may also lead to crowding or crookedness in the permanent teeth developing beneath them. That’s why cavities in baby teeth must be treated with the same importance as permanent teeth.
If a baby tooth is knocked out, it can cause damage to its permanent replacement, including issues with alignment, enamel and color. The younger the child, the higher the risk for damage to the permanent tooth. If your child loses a baby tooth too early – such as from tooth decay or an accident – ask your dentist if a space maintainer is needed. This plastic or metal device can hold open the space until the permanent tooth is ready to appear.
Caring for baby teeth.
Now that you know the importance of baby teeth, here are some ways to help avoid problems with them:
- Make sure you baby's first dentist happens within six months of getting the first tooth and no later than the first birthday.
- Avoid transferring cavity-causing bacteria to your baby’s mouth. Don’t clean their pacifier with your mouth or share spoons, straws or other utensils.
- Prevent baby bottle tooth decay by:
- Not putting sweet drinks like juice in your baby’s bottle.
- Not letting your baby sleep with a bottle at naptime or bedtime.
- Cleaning your newborn’s gums with a damp washcloth after feedings. (Even milk contains sugar!)
- Encouraging your child to drink from a sippy cup by his or her first birthday.
- Brush teeth gently with a child-size toothbrush and a small amount of fluoride toothpaste (about the size of a grain of rice) once they appear until age 3. When your child learns to spit toothpaste out, you can increase to a small pea-sized amount from ages 3 to 6.
- Help your child break the thumb sucking habit before adult teeth appear. While it’s normal for children to suck their thumbs, if it continues as permanent teeth emerge, it can cause problems with speech and alignment of the teeth and jaws. Use positive reinforcement, like praise and rewards, when they avoid thumb sucking. Cover the thumb with a bandage as a reminder not to suck. And take the thumb out of their mouth when they’re asleep.
- Positive reinforcement is also effective to help wean children from a pacifier. You can start this process around the time they turn 2. It’s generally easier to break the pacifier habit than it is to keep children from sucking their thumbs.