There is a tendency for parents to treat baby teeth as being dispensable since we all know there will be a second set of adult teeth replacing them anyway. As a dentist, I would often see parents coming into the clinic for check-ups but their children would never sit in the dental chair unless there was a specific problem. I believe that it is this misconception that baby teeth are unimportant that leads to parents failing to take the necessary precautions to help their children maintain healthy baby teeth.
Well, baby teeth (also known as the deciduous teeth or the primary dentition) are important and they are required to serve a number of functions above and beyond simply biting and chewing. This is why we need to take care of them and make sure they last until the adult teeth (permanent teeth or secondary dentition) are ready to come through.
The first of the permanent teeth do not appear in the mouth until a child is about 6 years old and the last permanent teeth (not including the wisdom teeth) will appear by about 12-13 years. Therefore a child’s primary teeth need to last anywhere between 5-12 years. To ensure that they last, parents need to help children look after their teeth and inculcate good oral hygiene practices from young.
The Functions of Baby Teeth
1. Biting and Chewing
The most obvious function of the primary teeth is obviously for biting and chewing food.
Children need to eat a wide variety of food to gain a well-balanced diet. A child with limited teeth or one who is experiencing discomfort from tooth decay may refuse foods or limit food intake to those that can be consumed easily or with minimum discomfort. Chewing a variety of textures also stimulates the oral environment and exercises the jaw muscles.
The ability to bite and chew also helps to break up food into more easily digestible pieces and allow for better digestion of food. As the food is being broken up by the teeth, it is also mixed with saliva containing enzymes that begin the digestive process. A child that swallows too rapidly without chewing the food adequately will prolong the digestive process.
Teeth are necessary for the articulation of certain sounds. Young children who are still learning how to speak properly need their teeth to help them form words and speak clearly.
4. Development of the Jaw Bones and Facial Muscles
The presence or absence of teeth will affect the way in which the jaw bones and facial muscles develop. The growth of the jaw bones are affected by the facial muscles. Teeth and the chewing function help to exercise the facial muscles and facilitate the development of the jaw bones.
5. Place Holder
The primary teeth are place holders for the permanent teeth. They are intended to hold a space in the jaws until the permanent tooth is ready to erupt. When the permanent tooth is ready, it will push out from under the primary tooth, causing the roots of the primary tooth to break down. Therefore, the primary teeth also serve as a guide for the permanent teeth to erupt into its proper position.
When primary teeth are loss prematurely, the permanent teeth have no guide to follow. Additionally, the adjacent teeth tend to close the gap of the missing tooth, meaning there will be no space for the permanent tooth to erupt into. This can lead to crowding of the permanent teeth.
A child without teeth or with missing teeth may look cute, but she will not agree when the premature loss of her baby teeth leads to the growth of crooked permanent teeth.
As you can see, the baby teeth are important not only for biting and chewing but they also serve several other functions. For these reasons, we need to help our children take care of them until they are old enough to do it themselves. We’ll look at how to take care of baby teeth in the next post.