February is National Children’s Dental Health Month; I’d like to take a minute to educate you on the importance of baby teeth.
Baby teeth - or primary teeth - are important for a number of reasons. They play a key role in saving space for permanent teeth as well as speaking, chewing - which helps with digestion, and of course, smiling.
Baby teeth begin erupting in an infant’s mouth around 6 months of age, some as young as 3 months. This first tooth will remain in that child’s mouth until between 5-7 years old. The last tooth to erupt in a toddler’s mouth happens around 2 years old and remains in the mouth until 10-12 years of age. Sure, they will eventually be replaced by permanent, adult teeth, but a 10 year lifespan of the primary dentition isn’t one to be taken lightly.
Children’s teeth are smaller than adult teeth, and have thinner enamel - the hard protective outer layer of the tooth. Their soft pulp chambers which house the blood supply and nerves are much larger than adult teeth as well. You might be wondering, “But what does this actually mean?”
With less protection, baby teeth are much more susceptible to decay and infection than adult teeth. Childhood dental decay is the number one disease amongst children, more prevalent than asthma.
As we know, kids love sugar. I mean, who doesn’t? But it isn’t just sweets that are the culprit. Fruits are high in acid as well as sugar, although natural sugars, it is still sugar.They also love to snack. Growing kids are hungry! Whenever we eat, the bacteria in our mouth release acid as a byproduct of breaking down our food. This constant acid attack on their teeth puts them at risk for cavities.
A cavity is when bacteria have weakened the outer layer of the tooth, enamel, and travel into the next layer dentin. Dentin is the tooth’s second defence mechanism from tooth infection. But once a cavity reaches the pulp - as mentioned above is quite large and closer to the surface in baby teeth- the tooth often becomes infected. Once a tooth becomes infected, the only options are root canal - or pulpotomy in children - or extraction.
Here are some things that you can do to keep your children’s teeth healthy:
Begin cleaning your infants gums right away using a clean washcloth.
Begin using an infant toothbrush as soon as the first tooth erupts.
Brush twice a day for 2 minutes each time.
Begin flossing once they have two teeth that are touching, (floss picks are easiest).
Use a a grain of rice sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste. If you are concerned about your child swallowing the paste, you may consider a toothpaste without fluoride until you are comfortable with them spitting the toothpaste out.
Take your child to the dentist once the first tooth erupts to assess for proper development.
Drink tap water if your community has fluoridated water.
Consider using an electric toothbrush.
Take your child for regular dental hygiene visits.
Don’t skip out on the fluoride treatment if your dental hygienist recommends it.
I realize that oral hygiene routines are very difficult and a child’s attention span is limited. Make it fun. Show them their favourite characters brushing their teeth (thank you YouTube!). Play their favourite song to brush to. Make sure they are a part of your oral hygiene routine, as they will want to emulate everything you do. If your child has a sensitivity to the toothpaste (texture or flavour, as many do), skip it and brush with just water. It’s not worth the fight or making the routine a negative one. The removal of plaque and food debris is the most important thing here, which can be accomplished with good brushing and flossing alone. Pro tip: Have your child lay with their head in your lap with you sitting behind them. Picture how you have your teeth cleaned at the dental office. It’s much easier for you to see and for accessibility. It is very awkward trying to floss and brush someone’s teeth standing in front of them.
No parent wants to see their child go through a root canal or an unwanted extraction. Dental treatment can also become very costly, as sone children require sedation. Sadly, I see all too often parents don’t treat cavities because “it’s just a baby tooth”. I am here to tell you that it isn’t. When left untreated, cavities grow, and once a baby tooth becomes infected, this allows bacteria to spread to the developing permanent tooth under the gums. If a baby tooth is lost prematurely, other teeth can move into that space, causing crowded teeth, which results in future orthodontic treatment. Prevention s key.
So, no, it’s not just a baby tooth.