Is caring for milk teeth as important as caring for permanent teeth and at what age should we start enforcing the importance of oral health? Dr Laurika Krynauw, practicing dentist at Medicross Langeberg, shares valuable advice: “Many parents see milk teeth as something that will ‘fall out anyway’ and therefore do not see the need for oral care at a young age. The truth is, milk teeth are just as important as permanent teeth,” explains Krynauw.
“Even though milk teeth will be replaced by permanent teeth eventually, the early loss of milk teeth due to damage or decay, can cause future oral health problems. These problems can be prevented by proper dental care from a young age,” she explains. “Premature loss of milk teeth can result in ‘space loss’. This means that there will not be enough space for permanent teeth to develop and this will most likely create the need for braces in later, teenage years. Also, severely decayed milk teeth can cause abscesses that can irreversibly damage the permanent teeth underneath the milk teeth.
“The moment you see a tooth in your baby’s mouth, you need to start cleaning it. It is never too early to encourage good oral hygiene. When cleaning a baby’s mouth, it is imperative to use a special toothbrush that is soft and tailor-made for little mouths. If the bristles of a toothbrush are too hard, it could damage their gums and teeth. You can find these special toothbrushes at most pharmacies and dentists.
“You should also use children’s toothpaste, it is not just a gimmick,” Krynauw adds. “Most toothpastes contain fluoride and children tend to swallow toothpaste, because they find it difficult to spit out the excess. If they ingest too much fluoride, it can lead to fluorosis which will result in permanent white stains on their teeth.
“Children’s toothpaste contains less fluoride than adult toothpaste and this prevents fluorosis. Also, the mint flavouring in many toothpastes cause a ‘burning’ sensation in their mouths that many children find disturbing. Children’s toothpastes are much milder and gentle to their taste buds.”
Krynauw mentions that babies should also be taken for regular visits to the dentist. “You should make an appointment at your local dentist as soon as you see teeth developing. The first appointment will mainly focus on educating parents on how to properly clean their baby’s teeth and other ways to protect their child’s teeth and gums. This will also allow your child to become comfortable with the dental environment at an early age and prevent future fear of going for dental check-ups.
“In order to protect babies’ teeth and gums, you need to be aware of the variety of conditions and risk factors that apply to milk teeth. One of the biggest concerns with milk teeth in babies is early childhood caries, also known as baby bottle caries, a condition which develops when a child goes to bed with a bottle, usually containing some kind of sugary liquid like tea, milk or carbonated drinks.
“Babies often do not swallow the last bit of liquid which causes the teeth to be coated in sugary liquid for the remainder of the night. The sugar in the liquid causes decalcification of the teeth, which could lead to rotting and broken teeth and inflamed gums.”
According to Krynauw diet also plays an important role in the oral health of a baby or toddler. “Sugar intake should be limited. Ensure that your child’s diet contains enough calcium and magnesium. This will promote healthy teeth and bone development,” she adds.
As children get older, they will start developing permanent teeth in place of their milk teeth. “Most children start to lose their milk teeth between the ages of five and six. Each child is different though, some will start developing permanent teeth as early as four and some as late at seven.”
Krynauw cautions that even though children might seem old enough to take care of their own teeth, the responsibility for their oral health ultimately stays with the parent.
“Remember the golden rule: if a child cannot tie their own shoelaces, they cannot take care of their own teeth. Make sure they understand the importance of oral care and know how to take care of their own teeth before handing over the responsibility to them.
“Children are always observing, so be sure to lead by example and take good care of your own teeth. By teaching your children the importance of oral care, they will continue to practice proper oral hygiene into later life. By doing so, they will have better, stronger and healthier teeth as adults and prevent conditions such as tooth decay, receding gums, abscesses and gingivitis,” she concludes.