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Dear Patient: Those baby teeth matter

Aug. 2, 2021
They're going to fall out anyway, so why bother taking care of them? But baby teeth have a significant role not only in a person's future mouth but in their overall health and well-being, says Amanda Hill, BSDH, RDH.

Ahhhh, babies! That sweet gummy smile, those cute little pictures with two bottom teeth sticking out, are just too precious for words. But those sleepless nights, while those teeth come in, are less than cute for sure. They 're enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head and just not consider how and why to care for those sharp sabers that will fall out eventually. Baby teeth have an essential purpose. And just because they will fall out one day doesn’t mean we can treat them as disposable. Establishing healthy habits early on will set our littlest people up for a lifetime of good oral health.

I began my dental career as a dental assistant in my pediatric dental practice, working after school a few days a week. I saw firsthand how quickly teeth could be destroyed through improper care and habits. At the ripe old age of 15, having just lost my last baby tooth, I started educating well-meaning parents on why we couldn’t “just pull them all” and wait until the permanent teeth came in.

They hold space

Back in the 1990s, when I was talking to these parents, one of the main points we’d drive home is that baby teeth hold space for the permanent teeth forming down below the gum. Without the baby teeth in place, the teeth around them could tip and affect chewing. If that space isn’t saved, it might make it more difficult for the permanent tooth to come in. Think of it as a backup on the interstate—when one car is in the way, the cars pile up!

They affect overall health

We also talked about the kiddo’s overall health. A large cavity could cause junior a lot of pain, and then you’re back to those sleepless nights again. It could even affect the permanent tooth’s formation down below. But even more concerning is that you can die from a dental infection. I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s true. So just leaving cavities until a tooth falls out isn’t safe. What we didn’t know way back then was the bacteria that causes cavities is contagious. I don’t just mean from tooth to tooth; I’m talking person to person. And all that ties into your establishing body’s microbiome, in your mouth, and your gut. Oral health is directly connected to overall health.

They're the microbiome foundation

In a previous "Dear Patient" I wrote called "That gunk on your teeth is alive," I talked about how the biofilm in your mouth started forming when you were a little baby and you got a big kiss from Aunt Edna. So taking care of those baby teeth is key to the foundational microbiome of baby’s mouth—taking care or NOT taking care could set them up for a lifetime of cavities and gum disease or a lifetime of health. Starting out with a healthy oral environment will not only save kiddos time in the dental chair; it'll also help them reduce the risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and more.

They affect permanent teeth

Do you remember your second-grade picture where you have some ridiculous haircut and HUGE front teeth that do not fit your face? We call that the Ugly Ducking stage. Aside from making you relive poor wardrobe choices, I want you to remember that your baby teeth and permanent teeth spend some time together in your mouth. In fact, they can comingle for six to ten years (back to that biofilm conversation). When the environment is suitable for cavities on baby teeth, it sure doesn’t discriminate from the permanent ones. Depending on how old you are, you might have old silver fillings in the chewing surfaces of those back molars. Or you might have already had them replaced a time or two, losing a little more tooth structure each time. Perhaps that small filling became a bigger filling, that became a crown, that needed a root canal….you get the idea. If you can avoid cavities to begin with, that cycle never starts.

They help the face grow properly

We are learning more and more about the importance of a proper airway for a healthy life. But what does this have to do with baby teeth? A ton! While holding space for the permanent teeth, those baby teeth are helping the face grow! Proper tongue posture and nasal breathing allow the face to grow properly. When there are dental issues, tongue ties, or a whole host of other issues, it affects how the face develops. Sixty percent of facial growth happens before kids are eight!

So while it might seem like baby teeth are simply something to put under our sweet child’s pillow one day, they actually have a big job. They are setting the foundation for a life of health and wellness. Be sure to take care of those chompers from day one!

AMANDA HILL, BSDH, RDH, a practicing dental hygienist, industry educator, and key opinion leader, is passionate about the dental industry. She is a speaker, award-winning author, and host of Your Dental Top 5 podcast. A member of the advisory board for RDH magazine and OSAP’s Infection Control In Practice Editorial Review Board, Amanda strives to make topics in dentistry accurate, accessible, and fun! She can be reached at amandahillrdh.com and [email protected].