Brandon Nakken, DDS, ABC Pediatric Dentistry

One of the concerns we dentists address with parents of young children is, “Why do baby teeth matter? Aren’t they just going to fall out?” While cavities in baby teeth don’t always require fillings, especially when the cavity is small and teeth are on their way out, baby teeth are essential to oral health and to a child’s self-esteem. Here are some of the reasons why:

Space holders

Nothing does a better job of holding space for a developing permanent tooth than a baby tooth. If baby teeth are healthy, they prevent crowding by holding the correct amount of space for the permanent teeth that will erupt in their place. Overtime, teeth migrate toward the middle of the mouth. As cavities increase in size, a baby tooth begins to lose structure that would have otherwise prevented this migration. This may result in irreversible space loss and crowded permanent teeth. Worse still, if baby teeth are lost prematurely (either because of infection or injury) a large gap between teeth may form. Significant movement into this gap can occur by adjacent teeth that can potentially block permanent teeth from erupting. There are artificial spacers dentists can use in place of a missing tooth, if the need is identified at the proper time, but nothing else is quite as effective as a healthy baby tooth.

Avoiding pain

The most common chronic disease in children is tooth decay. Tooth decay, when left unaddressed, can cause significant pain. Tooth pain varies greatly, but can be responsible for inattentiveness in school, school absences, and even difficulty eating and sleeping. The good news is that cavities are preventable, although some kids may have to work harder than others because of genetic susceptibility. It is critical for kids to brush and floss regularly and maintain a healthy diet. The enamel in baby teeth is significantly thinner than enamel in permanent teeth, which allows cavities to grow more quickly in kids. For avoiding tooth pain, prevention is key. Regular dental checkups are the best way to identify problematic dental disease processes. Dentists can stop the potentially painful progression of cavities by removing decay and placing fillings. Dentists can also discuss ways to tailor diet and oral hygiene to reverse and prevent further decay for a happy, pain-free child.

Avoiding damage to developing permanent teeth

If a child has healthy baby teeth, they are more likely to have healthy permanent teeth. When baby teeth become infected from deep cavities that reach the nerve, they can cause abscesses. An abscess is the outward presentation of a significant infection occurring within the bone that supports the teeth. This type of infection is destructive to both bone and sometimes developing permanent teeth, which sit just below baby teeth. These infections can sometimes cause unsightly yellow or brown stains on permanent teeth. In rare cases, destruction of permanent teeth can also occur. This ranges from mild pitting to completely deformed teeth. Neglecting tooth decay on a baby tooth in this case can cause unwanted effects on permanent teeth that will last long after the baby tooth has fallen out. 

Part of overall healthy well-being

Healthy teeth are an integral part of our overall health. Keeping kids’ teeth clean and free from cavity-causing bacteria helps avoid chronic inflammation and pain, and contributes to a positive self-esteem. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry supports bringing children in for dental checkups by 12 months of age.