Your child won't keep his or her first teeth forever, but that doesn't mean those tiny pearly whites don't need conscientious care. Maintaining your child's dental health now will provide health benefits well into adulthood, as primary (baby) teeth serve some extremely important functions.
For one thing, primary teeth serve as guides for the eruption of permanent (adult) teeth, holding the space into which these new teeth will erupt. The crowns (tops) of the permanent teeth actually push against the roots of the baby teeth, causing them to resorb, or melt away. In this way, the adult teeth can take their proper place.
What's more, your child's primary teeth will be there for most of childhood, helping your child to bite, chew and speak. For the first six or so years, he or she will be relying on primary teeth exclusively to perform these important functions. Until around age 12, your child will have a mix of primary and permanent teeth. You will want to make sure those teeth stay healthy and are lost naturally — when it's time.
Your Child's First Teeth
Your child's 20 baby teeth will begin to appear usually between six and nine months, though in some cases it may start as early as three months or as late as twelve months. The two lower front teeth tend to erupt first, followed by the two upper ones, these teeth are called the central incisors. Then the neighboring teeth called lateral incisors will erupt too. The first molars come in next, followed by the canines (eyeteeth). And finally, the last teeth to erupt are the two-year molars. Sometimes your baby can experience teething discomfort during this process. If so, there are courses of action to help make your child more comfortable.
Your infant's gums should be gently wiped after each feeding with a water-soaked gauze pad or damp washcloth. As soon as the first tooth erupts, establish a daily brushing routine with a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and no more than a thin smear of fluoridated toothpaste. Your child may need your help with this important task until about the age of 6.
Your Child's First Dental Appointment
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that your child see a dentist by his/her first birthday, or as early as the first tooth erupts. Though this may sound early, learning proper pediatric oral hygiene techniques, checking for cavities, and watching for developmental problems is extremely important.
There are a number of forms of tooth decay that can affect babies and small children. Early Childhood Caries (tooth decay) can develop rapidly, progressing from the hard, outer enamel layer of a tooth into the softer, inner dentin in six months or less.
Most of all, it's important for your child to have a positive experience at the dental office as he/she will be a regular visitor for years to come.
Pediatric Dental Treatments
There are a variety of dental treatments offered to prevent tooth decay in children, or to save or repair teeth when necessary. They include:
Topical Fluoride — Fluoride incorporates into the enamel of teeth, making it harder and more resistant to decay. Although there is a small amount of fluoride in toothpastes and in some drinking water supplies, a higher concentration can be applied professionally to your child's teeth for maximum protection.
Dental Sealants — A plastic coating can be applied at the dental office to prevent cavities by sealing the little grooves on the chewing surfaces of back teeth known as “pits and fissures.” These little crevices become the perfect environments for decay-causing bacteria. Immature tooth enamel is more permeable and therefore less resistant to tooth decay. Dental sealants are easy to apply and provide years of protection (Watch Dental Sealant Video).
Root Canal Treatment — Perhaps you have had a root canal treatment yourself, to save an injured or severely decayed tooth. Well, sometimes children need root canals, too. In children these are called pulpotomies or pulpectomies. As mentioned above, baby teeth are important guides to the permanent teeth that are already forming beneath your child's gums. Therefore, saving them from premature loss can help prevent a malocclusion (“mal” – bad; “occlusion” – bite) that requires orthodontic treatment.
Bonding — Chips and minor fractures to front teeth — common childhood occurrences — can be repaired with tooth-colored bonding materials. These lifelike resins made of plastic and glass can be used on baby teeth as well as permanent teeth and last until the youngster has completed facial growth (Watch Bonding Video).
By around age 7, most malocclusions have become evident. Interceptive orthodontic treatment around this time can help direct proper tooth positioning and/or jaw growth, eliminating or simplifying the need for later treatment. There are many orthodontic problems that can be detected early and are examples of why a trained professional should evaluate your child during his/her growth and development.
Sports & Your Child's Teeth
If your child is active in sports, a custom-made mouthguard is a highly recommended safeguard. According to the American Dental Association, an athlete is 60 times more likely to suffer dental harm when not wearing one of these protective devices. A custom mouthguard is made specifically for your child using a model of his or her teeth. This will offer greater protection than an off-the-shelf model. It's an investment that pays off highly in the form of reduced pain, suffering — and dental expenses down the road!
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Your baby's teeth will not be visible at birth. But believe it or not, they already exist beneath the gums. Children's primary teeth begin forming at about the sixth week of pregnancy, and start mineralizing — building the bonelike inner tooth layer (called dentin) and the super-hard enamel layer that covers it — around the third or fourth month of pregnancy. So if you're pregnant, it's not too early to start thinking about how to make sure your child's teeth are as healthy as possible!
Like everything else having to do with your baby's physical development before birth, much depends on how well you take care of yourself. Developing teeth need certain nutrients to grow properly; if you don't get them through your diet, your baby won't receive them either. Likewise, you'll have to watch your intake of substances that could harm your teeth in utero, such as certain antibiotics. Here's a brief summary of what to seek and what to avoid.
Certain nutrients are particularly important for prenatal tooth development:
- Calcium, a mineral, is the main component of teeth. If there is not enough calcium coming from your diet to support fetal development, your body will actually take this mineral from your bones (but not your teeth) and use it to meet your developing baby's needs. Good for your baby, not so good for you. The best sources of dietary calcium are dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt. It can also be found in broccoli and kale.
- Phosphorous, another mineral, also accounts for the hardness of teeth. It is found in every one of the body's cells, and also in many foods — especially high protein sources such as meat and milk, but also cereals. Of all the nutrients your baby's teeth need, this is the easiest to get.
- Vitamin D helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorous. Very few foods contain it naturally — oily fish like salmon and tuna are exceptions; that's why it is added to milk and some other beverages and foods (check labels to find out which ones). It is also produced in the body naturally when skin is directly exposed to sunlight. Concerns about the negative effects of sun exposure may prevent you from getting all the vitamin D your body requires this way, so you may be advised to take a supplement.
- Protein is the most plentiful substance in your body after water. It is responsible for building, maintaining and replacing the body's tissues. Interestingly, it is the action of a single protein that causes calcium-phosphate crystals to form tooth enamel rather than bone. All proteins are made of amino acids, but some amino acids cannot be manufactured by the body and must come from foods. Meats and dairy products are the most protein-rich. It is possible to get all the different proteins your body requires with a vegetarian diet, but you will need to pay closer attention to what combinations of foods will provide all the essential amino acids.
Seek Guidance on Dietary Supplementation & Medications
If you feel your diet is inadequate in some nutrients during your pregnancy, it's best to seek professional medical advice on what supplements you may need. While it's unlikely you will ever receive too much of any given nutrient from your diet, you can overdo certain vitamins and minerals in pill form (vitamin D and calcium, for example).
When you know you're pregnant (or if you may be pregnant), please share the news with all of your healthcare professionals who see you. That way, medications that should not be prescribed will be avoided at this time. For example, if you need antibiotics to combat an infection, some are much safer for developing babies than others. Tetracycline, for example, can permanently stain teeth in utero. Fluoride supplementation at this time is not recommended either, as there are too many unanswered questions about its use during pregnancy.
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