I’ve heard this question many times in the decades I’ve been practicing dentistry. The short answer is that good dental hygiene matters just as much — if not more so — for baby teeth than for adult teeth. The reason is that our teeth affect many areas of development, from chewing to talking. Children have their baby teeth from approximately 6 months to 12 years, and a lot of development happens during this time.
How baby teeth help with development
Primary (baby) teeth serve as a guide for permanent teeth to grow into the right position in the mouth. Ideally, a permanent tooth follows the root of the baby tooth it’s replacing, or it will come in between the roots of the baby molars. When there’s a missing baby tooth, there’s a possibility that the permanent tooth may not grow into place in the jawbone.
Teeth are present in the lower jawbone (mandible) and the upper jawbone (maxilla). Both of these bones are attached to the rest of the jaw with the help of tendons and muscles. It is the intricate coordination of all these structures, along with the tongue, that allows us to chew food, make sounds and communicate.
- Chewing: We know that we need our teeth to help chew our food, but let’s examine that for a minute. By chewing our food, we break it down into smaller portions, which allows food particles to be exposed to digestive enzymes found in our saliva. Our mouth has many ducts that empty salivary enzymes produced by salivary glands. The rolling of the tongue helps mix the food up with the saliva and the enzymes present in it. This is why babies are given food in pureed form while we’re waiting for their primary teeth to grow in. Adults and children who don’t have adequate teeth have trouble digesting food, which can lead to constipation.
- Talking: We need age-appropriate teeth to be able to speak and enunciate words in an appropriate way. Many people who have an inadequate number of teeth will have trouble with speech. Though most children do adapt over a period of time, it makes sense to not create additional challenges for them if it’s not necessary.
Healthy teeth are about more than beautiful smiles
When teeth are not taken care of properly, they are susceptible to cavities. When a cavity gets closer to the nerve, the individual experiences pain and sensitivity to hot and cold. This usually lasts a few seconds to a minute or so. When this decay has had the opportunity to get deeper over time, bacteria present in the cavity advances into the nerve chamber of the tooth. This is when an individual has a full-blown toothache, and they may be writhing in pain. In other words, an infected baby tooth elicits the same intensity of pain that an adult tooth does. The longer a cavity is left without restoring it per a dentist’s recommendation, the higher the possibility that the individual will experience pain associated with a tooth infection.
Though less common, not taking care of baby teeth can lead to the shape of the child’s face changing. Here’s how: When teeth are lost prematurely, the supporting bone around that tooth will atrophy (break down) because it no longer has a purpose. When this happens in the whole mouth, there is a reduction in the size of the upper and lower jaw. This leads to a change in the jaw and facial profile of the individual. When this happens over a long period of time, the affected portion of the jaw gets weaker and has the potential to fracture easily with trauma. It also cannot support prosthetic pieces such as dentures or other restorations that allow for the proper functioning of the jaw.
These are just a few reasons it’s so important to take care of baby teeth, which is one of the reasons we offer free visits for babies on or before their first birthdays. We work with our families to start children off on a lifetime of good dental hygiene, and everything that goes along with that.
Dr. Perry Francis, his wife and two children have called Reno home for 34 years. At his practice, Wild About Smiles, his team specializes in dental care for infants, children, young adults and people with special needs. He has offices in Sparks (very close to Reno, given its convenient freeway access at 395 and North McCarran) and Fallon. Call to make an appointment: (775) 331-9477.