Should You Worry If Baby Teeth Get Cavities?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It may seem of little consequence if baby teeth get cavities since they’re just going to fall out to make room for permanent teeth.

But orthodontists place a good deal of value on keeping a child’s original teeth healthy.

“They’re just baby teeth” is something that Tansy Schoonmaker, pediatric dentist and co-owner of Little Jaws Big Smiles in Dewitt, hears “all day, every day,” she said. But she insists they are important, both in the present and in the future.

“If you don’t keep those teeth healthy, those teeth can become filled with cavities and painful,” Schoonmaker said. “It can become a distraction from school.”

Children with pain in their mouths may feel reluctant to chew as much. Schoonmaker said that oftentimes, children don’t mention dental pain because its onset is gradual. Their dental pain may lead to poor eating.

“When we fix their teeth, the parents say, ‘I can’t believe how much they’re eating,’” she said. “Parents sometimes bring in children with abscesses and the children never complained. The children think it’s normal.”

Baby teeth play an important role in a child’s oral development as well. Schoonmaker said that children who lose baby teeth too early are more likely to need braces and more likely to need a longer treatment with bracers later.

“We want to maintain baby teeth,” said Deb New, orthodontist at New Smiles Orthodontics in Rochester. “As teeth grow, they go where there’s space. If they lose a baby tooth prematurely, it can cause teeth to move where there’s space.” It may not be the most ideal space.

New calls baby teeth “space maintainers” because as a tiny tooth falls out, the neighboring baby teeth still in place help prevent the permanent tooth coming in from going askew. For some teeth, the baby teeth help provide an even bigger space for permanent teeth.

“Second molars, one of the last baby teeth to erupt, are wider front to back than the permanent tooth that will grow in,” New offered as an example. “That’s why we like to maintain these teeth.”

Baby teeth lost too early can mean the tongue is in a different, unnatural position which can cause crowding.

Proper oral hygiene can help children keep their baby teeth for as long as they’re needed. Leaving it up to the children is likely not the best strategy. New encourages parents to monitor brushing with fluoride toothpaste — at least twice daily — for two minutes each session. Daily flossing is also important, as it removes plaque before it has the chance to harden onto the teeth. The child’s dentist can provide help in teaching proper technique.

As recommended, a fluoride dental rinse can help improve oral health, especially for children who live in cities that don’t add fluoride to the drinking water.

Children can be seen by their dentist as early as the first tooth to get acquainted, become accustomed to dental examinations and develop a relationship of trust with the dentist. Parents should also set a good example of keeping up with their own home care and scheduled dental visits.

Dental cleanings and exams twice a year or more often if recommended can also prevent problems.