Thursday, March 31, 2016

More than “just” baby teeth

Kristen Griffiths, Alberta Health Services dental hygienist

I have had many parents ask me why it is so important to take care of their children’s teeth when they are “just” baby teeth that they are going to lose anyway. The answer is simple - it is important because they are more than just baby teeth.

Primary, or baby teeth, act as “space holders” for the permanent adult teeth when they are ready to come in. If the baby teeth are broken down or removed before the adult tooth naturally erupts the remaining teeth can drift into the open space preventing the adult tooth from coming in. It is also important to know that some of the baby teeth, the back molars for example, will be in a child’s mouth until they are 12-14 years old.

Baby teeth also play a very important role in a child’s early development. The position of these first teeth helps facilitate proper pronunciation of sounds in speech production and development. Without primary teeth speech can be delayed and speech impediments are more likely to occur.

Proper maintenance of baby teeth also helps to promote proper nutrition through chewing motions and habits. Studies have found that children who have severe decay or cavities in their baby teeth are more likely to be underweight and malnourished.

Excellent oral health also helps to promote good overall body health. The mouth should be thought of as the “gate-way” to the rest of the body, which means what goes on in the mouth can affect the other body systems as well. Poor oral health has been linked to several health conditions including diabetes, respiratory disease, ear and sinus infections and cardiovascular disease. Unhealthy teeth and gums can also affect self esteem, sociability, enjoyment of food and quality of life. Dental disease and cavities in children has been linked to loss of sleep and appetite, delayed growth, poor learning and behaviour problems. The Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) in 2009 estimated 2.26 million school-days are lost annually due to dental visits and dental sick-days.

There are precautions parents can take at home to prevent decay/cavities in baby teeth such as;
- provide children with tooth friendly snacks like apples, cheese and fresh vegetables and monitor sugar intake, especially between meals.
- limit the amount of fruit juice that is being consumed and offer water between meal times.
-avoid putting your child to bed with a bottle or sippy cup and wean them to an open-faced cup by 12-14 months.
-lift your child’s top and bottom lip at least once a month to check along the gum line for brown, black, yellow or white chalky spots, which can often be signs of early cavities.
-brush your children’s teeth at least twice a day, for two minutes, and floss wherever the teeth touch.

It is also important, for the maintenance of good oral health, to have regular dental check-ups and cleanings. It is recommended to take your child for their first dental visit six months after the eruption of the first tooth or by age one. Many dental offices, dental hygiene clinics and community health settings offer free “happy visits” for children three years old and younger. Alberta Health Services offers a free Fluoride Protection for Toddlers program, at health units across the province, for eligible children aged 12-35 months. Call your local clinics to see what programs they have to offer.

Kristen Griffiths is a dental hygienist with Alberta Health Services’ Population Health Promotion and can be reached at email

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