Healthy Beginnings

Baby Teeth are Not Disposable

By Dr. Shane Sykes, DMD

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I’ll admit that washing the dishes is not on my list of favorite activities. Some of the things I love about summertime are picnics and BBQs, and the fact that we use a lot more paper plates. I happily volunteer to “wash the dishes” after a large outdoor meal, because I can simply gather the dirty dishes and throw them away, no washing required!

While that approach might work well for a family picnic, it definitely doesn’t work for children’s teeth. Sure, baby teeth will eventually fall out and be replaced, but they are most assuredly NOT disposable. Baby teeth play a critical role in the physical and social development of children, and keeping those “disposable” teeth healthy is the parent’s responsibility. Here are several factors you should consider when caring for your child’s teeth:

Starting out right

Most babies get their first tooth sometime between 3-12 months old. While the teething process may not be fun, it is a sign of proper development and great things to come. Unfortunately, many parents do not realize the importance of caring for their baby’s teeth, even before the teeth grow in. By allowing your baby to chew on teething toys or developmental toothbrushes (like the Baby Banana Brush), you’re helping them get used to the unique sensation of tools designed to clean the teeth.

One of the earliest and most devastating dental mistakes parents can make is putting their baby to bed with a bottle of milk or juice. While it may make sleeping easier, it can often lead to “baby bottle tooth decay,” a condition where cavities develop on the baby teeth at a very young age. Sometimes, it is so severe that we have no choice but to remove all the teeth on very young children, leaving them toothless until the permanent teeth begin to grow in around age six. Instead of milk or juice, use plain water in a bottle or use a pacifier for the child to suck on, instead. That way, you can rest peacefully both now and in the future.

Healthy baby teeth are important for proper development

It may not seem like it, but baby teeth are actually designed for much more than just leaving bite marks on older siblings! Healthy teeth are critical for helping children get the nutrition their growing bodies need. Children who are missing teeth or who have dental pain choose less nutritive foods, leading to poorer growth and developmental outcomes.

A child’s teeth also significantly influence social development. When children are missing teeth or have “ugly teeth” due to cavities, they may receive unkind treatment from their peers, and could develop poor self-perceptions that will be difficult to change over the rest of their life. Proper care of the baby teeth can help set your child on a path for good self-esteem.

While it may seem cute initially, thumb sucking (or finger sucking) can become a major developmental problem both physically and socially. By constantly sucking on their thumb, a child actually changes the way their jawbones grow. Their bones will literally grow around their finger, resulting in an upper jaw that is too long and narrow and a lower jaw that may be underdeveloped. Additionally, the social consequences of thumb sucking at school can be devastating.

One often-overlooked role of baby teeth is that baby teeth preserve space for the permanent teeth. Before a baby tooth falls out, it acts as a “reserved parking space” for the permanent tooth that will replace it. When baby teeth are lost prematurely, it can lead to alignment issues in the permanent teeth, requiring complicated and extensive orthodontics care. And, a baby tooth that has a cavity can also transfer that cavity to a neighboring permanent tooth. These are problems best avoided through taking good care of children’s teeth. Developing healthy dental habits at an early age will help ensure that your child has the best opportunities for proper development, both physically and socially.

“I want to brush my own teeth”

Hopefully you’ve done a great job introducing your baby to good dental habits, and if they are 3 years old, they’re beginning to be able to brush their teeth themselves. Sometimes we let them brush on their own because they insist, and sometimes we let them become independent because, as parents, we’re lazy. Unfortunately, regardless of desire, children don’t develop the fine-motor control required to adequately brush their teeth until they are 6-8 years old. Until that time, parents should encourage children to brush on their own after meals, but should take charge of brushing and flossing before bed to ensure that children go to sleep with a healthy mouth.

Once children are old enough to brush on their own, it is still important for parents to stay involved. One useful strategy is to use plaque-disclosing products once a week (or once every other week) as a visual “check-up” for how well the teeth are being cleaned. These chewable tablets or solutions can be purchased at most drug stores, and are an invaluable tool for both children and adults to evaluate the effectiveness of their oral hygiene routine. After brushing, simply chew one of the tablets, swish and then look at your report card in the mirror. Any pink left on the teeth is a cavity waiting to develop.

So, go ahead and toss out those paper plates, but take good care of those baby teeth – they are far from disposable!

For more information, call The Reno Dentist at 775-200-9070 or visit www.