Infancy is perhaps the only time in a person's life where a smile with just a few tiny teeth is still endearing. More will come—and then each will gradually depart, succeeded by permanent replacements.
That short lifespan, though, doesn't diminish their importance. Primary teeth not only provide children the ability to eat solid food and develop speech, but they set the stage for future dental health.
The latter arises from primary teeth's role as placeholders for incoming permanent teeth. Because permanent teeth eruption occurs in stages, primary teeth prevent earlier erupted teeth from drifting into the space intended for a later tooth. If they're lost prematurely and other teeth crowd into the space, the intended tooth may not have enough room to erupt properly, cascading from there into a poor bite (malocclusion).
The most common reason for premature loss is an aggressive form of tooth decay in children under 6 called early childhood caries (ECC). About one in four U.S. children encounter ECC, with those in poverty at higher risk. Infection in one tooth can spread to others, including newly erupted permanent teeth.
The goal then is to prevent ECC as much as possible, and initiate prompt treatment should it still occur. A good prevention strategy has two prongs: the actions and habits of parents or caregivers; and the prevention and treatment measures taken by dental providers.
At home, it's important that you wipe your newborn's gums with a clean, damp cloth after each feeding to reduce bacterial growth. As teeth erupt, switch then to gentle brushing with a rice grain-sized amount of baby toothpaste. You should also limit their sugar consumption, including not allowing them to sleep with a bedtime bottle of any liquid other than water.
It's also important that you start your child's regular dental visits around their first birthday. This allows us to detect any developing cavities, as well as apply sealants and topical fluoride to help prevent decay. And should a cavity develop, regular visits help ensure prompt treatment to preserve the tooth.
Your child's set of primary teeth only last a few short years, but their contribution echoes for a lifetime. Taking these measures to protect them from tooth decay ensures they'll fully make that contribution.
If you would like more information on dental care for children, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Do Babies Get Tooth Decay?”