A friend of my mother’s told us that our infant’s dental health is crucial. But we always assumed that baby teeth are going to fall out anyway — it’s the permanent teeth that will matter. Is there any real reason why oral hygiene is truly important for babies and toddlers? What steps should we take?
On the surface, your assumption seems logical; in most cases, children will have all 20 of their baby (primary) teeth by the age of 3. By the age of 6 or so, those teeth will start falling out naturally to make way for the permanent teeth (a process that is generally complete by the time a child reaches his teenage years.) Why prioritize oral health until the permanent teeth come in? Unfortunately, that’s where logic ends. Baby teeth are especially vulnerable to decay, since the enamel that covers the exterior of the tooth is soft when it first breaks through the gums. If a child gets a cavity — a hole that starts in the surface of a tooth due to decay — simply waiting for it to fall out is not a solution. Whether a cavity is in a primary or permanent tooth, it can lead to severe pain or even abscess — an infected pocket of puss accumulating in the cavity and spreading to the gums and nerve tissue. Pulling a baby tooth with a cavity in it is not the answer either. Baby teeth fall out naturally when a permanent tooth is ready to start growing in. Prematurely removing a baby tooth leaves a gap towards which the other teeth can drift, misaligning the teeth in the rest of the mouth.
These are just a few of the pitfalls of ignoring the dental hygiene necessary to maintain healthy primary teeth, but the good news is that preventing these problems does not require a parent to obtain a degree in dentistry. Here are some steps that will go a long way toward avoiding tooth decay and cavities in infants and young toddlers.
To start, even before an infant has any teeth (the first teeth generally start to come in when a baby is 3 months old), the gums should be wiped twice a day — once after breakfast and once after the last meal in the evening. The best way for a parent to do this is to wrap a two-inch square of gauze around her index finger, then gently wipe the gum pads of the child’s mouth. If an infant is bottle-fed, pediatric dentists suggest that the best kind of bottle to use is one fitted with a nipple that most closely mimics the process of breast-feeding, which naturally exercises the muscles in the baby’s mouth that support the primary teeth. Parents should avoid letting their child suck on an empty milk or juice bottle as a pacifier, because excessive exposure to the naturally occurring sugar in these drinks can dramatically increase an infant’s chances of tooth decay.
Children should make their first trip to the dentist as they enter their toddler years. By the time they have all their primary teeth, they should be in the habit of regularly brushing their teeth, using fluoride toothpaste, with the assistance of a parent, until they develop the dexterity to brush, rinse, and spit on their own.
Just because a child’s baby teeth are “temporary” does not mean that improper oral hygiene cannot have permanent effects. There’s no time too early to start taking the steps that will prevent dental issues from occurring.