Baby teeth may only be temporary, but they're no less important than adult teeth, and shouldn't be ignored. Neglecting a child's oral health in the early years can affect their development and harm their permanent teeth when they come through.
With good daily hygiene habits and regular dental visits, you can help your kids to get the best start on a lifetime of good oral health. Keep reading to find out why baby teeth are so important and the best ways to care for them.
Why we need to care for baby teeth
Baby teeth (also called primary teeth or milk teeth) are the only teeth young children have for many years, so any decayed, damaged or missing teeth can harm their development in many ways. Your child's first teeth are important for many reasons, including:
The growth (eruption) of teeth allows babies to start eating solid food for the first time, and the journey is only just beginning. Each new tooth expands their range, allowing them to bite, tear, crush, chew and grind food with ease.
While the front teeth can start to fall out from the age of 6 to 8, the back (chewing) teeth may not be replaced until as late as the teen years, so 'baby' teeth aren't as temporary as some people think.
Nutrition and health
A healthy smile is important for overall health. Painful, damaged or missing teeth can make it harder for children to eat and get the vital nutrition they need for energy and growth.
Oral health is linked to general health, and tooth decay, gum disease and other oral infections can increase health risks in other parts of the body.
Teeth work in combination with the jaws, tongue and lips to help children form speech sounds. Babies learn the different sounds that can be made by passing air through the teeth and the tongue striking the teeth.
Damaged or missing teeth can affect a child's speech development for the long term or may require speech therapy to correct.
Teeth also help to support the bones and muscles of the face, which is why missing teeth in adults can cause a sunken and prematurely aged appearance.
Self-esteem and social development
Children are conscious of their dental appearance. Decayed, damaged or missing teeth could affect their confidence, which could in turn affect their social and academic development.
Preparing for permanent teeth
Baby teeth are the foundation of adult teeth. They help to maintain space in the jaws as they develop, which is why many young children have gaps between their teeth.
If a baby tooth is lost prematurely, the teeth on either side could lean into the gap, causing problems such as crowding that may require orthodontic treatment later.
When do baby teeth need to be removed?
Children's dentists will always try to save a damaged tooth if they can, but with baby teeth, extraction is sometimes the best option for protecting the permanent tooth beneath and the surrounding teeth.
If a baby tooth is damaged by decay or an injury, it can usually be repaired with a filling or other restoration. However, more severely damaged teeth may be beyond repair, and could cause pain or a risk of infection if they're not removed.
Dentists may also recommend extractions if a child has a small jaw or another issue that could cause crowding or other orthodontic problems.
When do baby teeth grow?
Baby teeth normally start to appear from the age of 6 months, but this can be different for every child. Some babies grow their first tooth as early as 3 months, while others can take a year or more.
There's not usually anything to worry about if your child is a little late, but you should see a dentist if they still don't have any teeth by their first birthday, to check if there may be an underlying problem.
Although milk teeth can erupt at different ages, the order in which the teeth appear usually follows a similar pattern.
Teeth typically erupt in symmetrical groups, with the same teeth on the left and right sides of the mouth growing at around the same time and the upper teeth following the lower teeth (or vice versa).
As a rough guide, the order can be as follows:
- Lower central incisors – 6 to 10 months
- Upper central incisors – 8 to 12 months
- Upper lateral incisors – 9 to 13 months
- Lower lateral incisors – 10 to 16 months
- Upper first molars – 13 to 19 months
- Lower first molars – 14 to 18 months
- Upper canines – 16 to 22 months
- Lower canines – 17 to 23 months
- Lower second molars – 23 to 31 months
- Upper second molars – 25 to 33 months
Children usually start to lose (shed) their baby teeth and get their permanent teeth between the ages of around 6 to 12. The eruption of the permanent teeth follows a similar order, but with additional molars. Most people then grow third molars (wisdom teeth) between their late teens and early 20s.
How to care for baby teeth
You can start to care for your child's oral health before they even get their first teeth. Preventive care at home and at the dental clinic can lower their risk of developing tooth decay and other problems and helps primary teeth to last for as long as they're needed.
Brushing baby teeth
Baby teeth should be brushed twice a day, just like adult teeth, but there are some important differences in the brushing routine depending on the child's age.
- Before any teeth have erupted, gently wipe your baby's gums with a clean cloth, gauze pad or finger.
- When the first teeth appear, clean them twice a day for 2 minutes using a soft children's toothbrush and a pea-sized amount of low fluoride children's toothpaste or a grain-sized amount of full fluoride toothpaste.
- From the age of 6 or 7, children may have the dexterity to brush their teeth by themselves and can start using a pea-sized amount of adult toothpaste. Brushing should still be supervised to make sure they're doing it properly and for the right amount of time.
- Teach your child not to swallow toothpaste, as ingesting too much fluoride can sometimes lead to staining of the teeth (fluorosis).
- Some children find that an electric toothbrush is easier to use than a manual toothbrush, but this depends on the individual. Your child's dentist may recommend going electric if your child needs to improve their toothbrushing.
Flossing is important for children too, and should start as soon as their teeth touch together. Children will usually need assistance with flossing for longer than brushing. If they don't like the way floss feels, you can try a floss threader or interdental brush.
Healthy food and drink
Baby teeth are more vulnerable to tooth decay than permanent teeth, as they're smaller and the protective enamel layer is thinner. This means that acids released by bacteria in plaque have an easier job dissolving the enamel and forming cavities.
With most children in Australia consuming more sugar than is recommended, it's no surprise that tooth decay remains widespread and is the leading cause of tooth loss for children. Cutting down on confectionery, cakes and especially soft drinks and processed fruit juices can help to keep tooth decay at bay.
As well as avoiding the bad stuff, you can also help to strengthen children's teeth by providing them with a balanced diet rich in calcium and other vitamins and minerals. Along with milk, tap water is one of the best drinks for teeth, as most local water supplies in Queensland have fluoride added at safe levels to help strengthen teeth against plaque.
Visiting the dentist
Alongside daily brushing, flossing and a healthy diet, regular dental check-ups help to prevent dental problems before they have a chance to develop. It's recommended that you take your child to see a children's dentist within 6 months of their teeth erupting, or around their first birthday.
During their first visit, your child's dentist will help them to feel comfortable in the clinic surroundings, check that their teeth are developing normally, offer advice about caring for their teeth and discuss any concerns you may have.
They may also recommend preventive treatments such as fissure sealants to help lower their tooth decay risk, or orthodontics to help correct teeth alignment issues as they get older. They will then recommend the ideal visiting schedule for your child based on their individual needs.
Need a children's dentist on the Gold Coast?
There are no dumb questions when it comes to your child's dental health. Our family dentists at Robina Town Dental can answer any questions you have about your child's teeth, thumb sucking or other concerns you have and demonstrate how to brush their teeth properly, so you can give their baby teeth the great care they deserve.
American Dental Association. Baby Teeth [Online] 2012 [Accessed January 2021] Available from: https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/b/baby-teeth
Australasian Academy of Paediatric Dentistry. Why is it important to fix baby teeth? [Online] 2016 [Accessed January 2021] Available from: https://www.aapd.org.au/post/Why-it-is-important-to-fix-baby-teeth
Healthline. Is My Baby Teething? Check Our Baby Teething Chart to Find Out [Online] 2020 [Accessed January 2021] Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/baby/baby-teething-chart