04/01/2016  |  
No Fooling: Baby Teeth Really Do Deserve Special Care

On April Fool’s Day, many people enjoy playing harmless pranks on unsuspecting colleagues… like leaving a memo that “Mr. Fox” called, along with the phone number of the local zoo. But this past April 1, the New York Times took the opposite tack: They ran an interactive feature called “A Week of Misconceptions,” designed to debunk the most common falsehoods about health and science that circulate all year. First on the list was a fallacy about the Big Bang. Guess what big misunderstanding made number two on the list?

Give up? Here it is:  “Baby teeth don’t matter.”

The story begins by quoting a remark that’s often heard: “What’s the big deal if toddlers get cavities? Those teeth are going to fall out anyway.” It then goes on to thoroughly debunk that myth — citing evidence about the importance of baby teeth from numerous scientific studies, and offering suggestions about how to keep your children’s teeth in good shape.

Of course, the vital role played by healthy baby teeth isn’t exactly news to dentists: We’ve been talking about it for years! It has also been prominently featured in Dear Doctor magazine articles like “The Importance of Baby Teeth” and “Root Canal Treatment for Children's Teeth.” Yet the Times’ article serves as a reminder that not everyone has gotten this particular memo yet.

So in case you were wondering, here are some facts and figures showing why it’s vital to take care of baby teeth:

  • Tooth decay is an infectious disease — in fact, it’s the most common chronic disease in the world.
  • About 23% of children between 2 and 5 years old have cavities in their primary teeth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
  • Studies show that kids who get cavities in their primary teeth are much more likely to develop cavities in permanent teeth as well; these can lead to all sorts of dental problems.
  • Some 20% of kids from 6 to 8 years old have untreated tooth decay, according to the CDC.
  • Kids with tooth decay may experience pain, along with difficulty eating and speaking, and may have trouble focusing on schoolwork and other activities
  • If left untreated, tooth decay can lead to an abscess, a type of oral infection which may require emergency-room treatment (and is occasionally fatal).
  • A missing primary tooth can cause permanent teeth to erupt (come in) in the wrong places, or in poor alignment; orthodontic treatment may be needed to fix the problem.

What can you do to help kids keep their primary teeth healthy and avoid cavities? We’re glad you asked! Strategies for preventing tooth decay include restricting (or eliminating) your child’s access to sugary foods and drinks, making sure they clean their teeth properly, and visiting the dentist regularly for checkups and professional cleanings. If you do allow sugary treats, limit them to mealtimes — that gives the healthy saliva a chance to neutralize the acids produced in the mouth. And never let a child fall asleep with a bottle or sippy cup containing anything other than water! Even fruit juice and breast milk can cause the rapid onset of tooth decay.

Yes, baby teeth will be lost one day — but while they’re here, they need special care. And that’s no April-fool’s joke. Want more tips on how to care for your kids’ teeth? See the Dear Doctor magazine article “Top 10 Oral Health Tips for Children.”

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