Baby teeth or “primary teeth” may be small, but they have a big role to play in your child’s general health and development. 

The importance of children’s baby teeth is often underestimated.  Deciduous teeth or ‘baby teeth’ are with us for much longer than just our ‘baby years’.  In fact, some of these teeth remain in the mouth until about 12 years of age.  The first deciduous teeth begin to erupt at approximately 6 months of age, with all 20 deciduous teeth usually present by the time a child is 3 years old.

Good dental habits developed from an early age are invaluable, as they will stay with your child for life.   A healthy diet which includes a wide variety of nutritious foods, as well as good home cleaning and regular dental visits will ensure a healthy mouth for your child. Children benefit from becoming familiar with the dental environment from an early age. Children should ideally have a formal dental check up as soon as possible after their first tooth erupts. Establishing a relationship with your dental professional may take time. Consider bringing your child along to your active maintenance (exam and clean) appointments to allow them to become comfortable with the sights and sounds of the dental environment and establish a relationship with your Dentist, Dental Hygienist or Oral Health Therapist. A dental examination before starting school can confirm that your child’s teeth are healthy and comfortable and not likely to impact on their ability to learn.

Premature loss of teeth can affect a child’s chewing, therefore impairing their ability to eat nutritiously and to thrive and grow.  Proper chewing motions are acquired over time and with extensive practice, and kids who have malformed or severely decayed primary teeth are more likely to experience dietary deficiencies, malnourishment, and to be underweight. Healthy primary teeth promote proper chewing and can enable more nutritious eating.   A child may also become self-conscious with visible missing or decayed teeth, resulting in social concerns. 

The presence and proper positioning of primary teeth promotes correct syllable pronunciation and prevents the tongue from straying during speech formation. Learning to speak clearly is crucial for cognitive, social, and emotional development.  Healthy baby teeth are necessary for this important speech sound production and development.

Having healthy baby teeth now can help your child have a straighter smile in the future.  Baby teeth act as a template to guide the growth of the adult teeth. In addition, these spacers facilitate the proper alignment of adult teeth and also promote jaw development.   If prematurely lost because of decay, it may be a number of years before the adult teeth erupt (grow) into the space.  The remaining baby teeth can tip and move into the space left by the missing teeth.  This causes crowding or even trapping of the adult teeth underneath the gum and can necessitate orthodontic treatment (braces). 

Diet is the biggest contributing factor to decay in children’s mouths.  Sugars feed the bacteria found in our mouth, which produce acids that break down the tooth, causing decay.  We know the dangers of treats such as lollies, soft drinks and chocolate and the importance of limiting these to special occasions.  Muesli and fruit bars, juice, cordial, as well as dried fruit are some other slightly less obvious high sugar foods that shouldn’t be everyday snack foods or lunchbox options.  All foods and drinks containing sugars and acids can be harmful to teeth.  This unfortunately includes some healthy alternatives that have ‘good sugars’ such as breads, milk and fruit.  It is unrealistic to cut these out of a child’s diet altogether.  Instead, it is suggested to limit their frequency, by reducing snacking, and to drink plenty of plain water, especially after a sweet or acidic snack or drink.  Teeth need two hours to recover from the acid attack that follows a meal, so if your child likes to snack, their mouth could constantly be vulnerable to decay.

Dental caries (decay) is currently the most common chronic disease experienced by Australian children.  Dental decay is a preventable condition, however, by the age of six, 35 percent of Australian children will have at least one decayed tooth.  Deciduous teeth have a dental pulp encased in tooth structure, just like adult teeth.  The crowns of deciduous teeth are very thinly covered with enamel, making them vulnerable to decay developing quickly.  Decay in deciduous teeth can result in pain and infection (toothache) just like an adult might experience. Infection and toothache caused by dental decay is presently the second most common cause of hospital admissions in Australian children.  

Below are some tips for keeping your child’s mouth clean, healthy and happy.

  • Aim for a dental examination as soon as possible after your child’s first tooth erupts. Consider bringing your child along to your own dental examination appointments to help them become familiar with the dental environment and build a relationship with your Dentist, Dental Hygienist or Oral Health Therapist. An examination before a child starts school ensures that a child’s mouth is ‘ready to learn’. Pain, difficulty eating and tooth position can all impact a child’s ability to thrive in the school environment.
  • Twice daily brushing with a fluoridated toothpaste and daily flossing to disrupt the harmful bacteria that cause decay and gum infection
  • Children should start to learn how to independently clean their teeth from 5 years of age.  Children do not develop the manual dexterity to effectively clean their own teeth until around 8-10 years of age. Until this age, brushing and flossing should be a team effort.  We suggest letting your child brush first and then a parent cleaning afterwards.  Continuing to check your child’s brushing daily beyond this age is strongly encouraged.
  • It may be easier to clean your child’s teeth while you’re seated with their head in your lap, similar to the position used when you sit in the dentist’s chair
  • Cleaning should ideally be supervised until at least age 10
  • Everyone needs to brush their teeth for 2 minutes, you can set a timer or play a song so your child knows how long it should take
  • Consider using an electric toothbrush
  • From the time a child’s first tooth erupts until 5 years of age, use an age- appropriate child’s low-fluoride toothpaste and only a pea-sized amount
  • From 6 years of age, use an adult strength fluoride toothpaste
  • Ensure your child spits out excess toothpaste
  • Some children love the taste of toothpaste so keep it out of reach to avoid excess consumption
  • Floss handles or holders can make flossing more achievable for children and parents alike!