There is a tendency for parents to treat baby teeth as being dispensable since we all know there will be a second set of adult teeth replacing them anyway. However, baby teeth (also known as the deciduous teeth or the primary dentition) are important and are necessary to serve several functions. This is why we need to take care of them and make sure they last until the adult teeth (permanent teeth or secondary dentition) are ready to come through.
The first of the permanent teeth do not appear in the mouth until a child is about 6 years old and the last permanent teeth (not including the wisdom teeth) will appear by about 12-13 years. Therefore a child's primary teeth need to last anywhere between 5-12 years. To ensure that they last, parents need to help children look after their teeth and inculcate good oral hygiene practices from young.
The Functions of Baby Teeth
1. Biting and Chewing
The most obvious function of the primary teeth is obviously for biting and chewing food.
Children need to eat a wide variety of food to gain a well-balanced diet.
A child with limited teeth or one who is experiencing discomfort from tooth decay may refuse foods or limit food intake to those that can be consumed easily or with minimum discomfort. Chewing a variety of textures also stimulates the oral environment and exercises the jaw muscles.
The ability to bite and chew also helps to break up food into more easily digestible pieces and allow for better digestion of food. As the food is being broken up by the teeth, it is also mixed with saliva containing enzymes that begin the digestive process. A child that swallows too rapidly without chewing the food adequately will prolong the digestive process.
Teeth are necessary for the articulation of certain sounds. Young children who are still learning how to speak properly need their teeth to help them form words and speak clearly.
4. Development of the Jaw Bones and Facial Muscles
The presence or absence of teeth will affect the way in which the jaw bones and facial muscles develop. The growth of the jaw bones are affected by the facial muscles. Teeth and the chewing function help to exercise the facial muscles and facilitate the development of the jaw bones.
5. Place Holder
The primary teeth are place holders for the permanent teeth. They are intended to hold a space in the jaws until the permanent tooth is ready to erupt. When the permanent tooth is ready, it will push out from under the primary tooth, causing the roots of the primary tooth to break down. Therefore, the primary teeth also serve as a guide for the permanent teeth to erupt into its proper position.
When primary teeth are loss prematurely, the permanent teeth have no guide to follow. Additionally, the adjacent teeth tend to close the gap of the missing tooth, meaning there will be no space for the permanent tooth to erupt into. This can lead to crowding of the permanent teeth.
A child without teeth or with missing teeth may look cute, but she will not agree when the premature loss of her baby teeth leads to the growth of crooked permanent teeth.
Looking after Baby Teeth
From the moment the first baby tooth appears in the mouth, parents need to take the responsibility to begin cleaning it. Initially, all that is necessary will be to take a damp cloth or piece of gauze and to wipe the tooth. Once more teeth begin to appear, you can use finger brushes that are worn over your index finger and use them to brush your baby's teeth.
When your baby is about 18 months to about 2 years old, you can purchase a child toothbrush and begin cleaning your child's teeth at least once a day. Initially, it is not necessary to use fluoridated toothpaste, especially if the drink water in your area is already fluoridated.
Remember, young children have trouble spitting out and usually end up swallowing the toothpaste, fluoride and all. This may expose your child to unnecessarily high levels of fluoride which can lead to fluorosis. Fluorosis, while not harmful, first appears as white spots on the teeth. In more severe cases, it can make the teeth appear brown and mottled. Although it is not harmful to the teeth, it is aesthetically unsightly.
If you are concerned about tooth decay, there is a new range of children's toothpaste with xylitol as an active ingredient. Xylitol also serves to prevent tooth decay.
You can encourage your child to get into the healthy practice of brushing by offering the toothbrush to your child but make sure that you perform at least one brushing for your child a day. Children have poor manual dexterity and will not brush adequately without your help. At most, they will chew on the brush and make a few cursory attempts to swipe the teeth if they are older.
As your child grows older, you can begin to teach him (or her) how to brush by guiding his (or her) hand. Once your child has mastered the art of tooth brushing, you can hand over the responsibility to your child to continue brushing, however, you may still need to keep an eye on your child to ensure the job is done properly. Tooth brushing is a task many children quickly get bored of and try to sneak out of. Some may comply with the task but do a poor job of cleaning.
It is not difficult to look after baby teeth. The challenge lies in teaching your child the process and helping him (or her) develop a healthy, lifetime habit. Knowing how important baby teeth are, it is important to ensure they last. Teaching your child to look after his (or her) primary teeth also sets the stage for healthy oral hygiene habits in future.