Whether you’re reliving the process of losing baby teeth with your own child or simply reflecting on your days of youth, it seems odd to think we go through two sets of teeth in our lifetimes.
That first set of teeth, known as our primary teeth, deciduous teeth, and most popularly, baby teeth, are placeholders for our permanent teeth. By the time we were teens, these baby teeth were history, leaving us with a lot of questions.
What were our baby teeth doing there in the first place? What purpose did they serve? Why do kids lose their teeth?
While our first sets of teeth are a mystery to many of us, one thing’s for sure: the impermanence of baby teeth doesn’t equal unimportance. Taking care of our teeth as children lays the groundwork for our oral health as adults.
Here’s some background on baby teeth and advice for handling the tooth-loss process, including visits from the tooth fairy.
Baby Teeth 101
When Do Baby Teeth Start Developing?
Even though newborn babies are born without visible pearly whites, the beginnings of their teeth have already started developing.
The basic substance of baby teeth begins to develop in the womb with fetuses about 6 weeks old. At about 4 months of gestation, the hard tissue surrounding their teeth starts to form.
By the time babies are born, their baby teeth are about ready to begin protruding from their gums. The first symptoms of teething appear at around 3-4 months old. These symptoms include drooling, mouth rashes from drooling, frequent coughing from the drooling, biting, and crying from discomfort.
Finally, the first tooth appears usually a few months later, around the 6-months-old mark. The teeth usually appear from the center outwards. The symptoms of teething probably won’t go away immediately, but that’s quite understandable. Imagine the pain of a wisdom tooth growing in, except when you’re a baby, everything’s a bit more traumatic.
Most often, by the time children turn three years old, they should have all their primary teeth.
Why Do We Have Baby Teeth?
The purpose of our teeth is clear: we use them to chew our food and may have once used them as a self-defense mechanism. But why do we grow a set of teeth, lose them, and then grow another set?
This is a tricky question, an evolutionary phenomenon that’s not yet entirely figured out. However, we can understand what differentiates us from mammals who grow multiple or no sets of teeth.
Do All Mammals Grow Teeth the Same Way?
Creatures that grow two sets of teeth are known as diphyodonts. However, not all diphyodonts are created equal! The tammar wallaby, for example, has a second set of delayed baby teeth.
Humans and most other mammals have two distinctly different sets, and the process of growing them is the same for most mammals. It’s discussed in detail in this science article, but here’s what happens, roughly speaking:
Our baby teeth begin developing in utero out of a “primary dental lamina.” They erupt during infancy and early childhood and fall out relatively soon thereafter.
Then, we grow a second set out of a “successional lamina.” This is a band of tissue that grows out of the baby tooth and develops the adult tooth, which eventually pushes out the baby tooth. These remain as our permanent set.
We only have two sets: this can be explained by the fact that our dental lamina degrades after the formation of our adult teeth. In creatures who develop multiple sets of teeth, it remains active. Thus, teeth continue forming and replacing their predecessors.
The Evolutionary Purpose of Diphyodoncy
The evolutionary purpose of all this tooth replacement is unclear. The most common explanation is that a baby’s jaw is simply too small to hold a full set of adult teeth. We grow a full set of teeth as babies to start learning oral processes early on.
This seems obvious, but the question remains: why do only mammals develop two sets of teeth? Why don’t other classes of animals?
One possible explanation is the fact that mammals breastfeed their young. Baby teeth are smaller and softer, which likely makes the breastfeeding process overall gentler than it would be with sharp adult teeth. This is why, in mammals, baby teeth are often referred to as “milk teeth.”
Still, this theory doesn’t explain everything. Firstly, there are other classes of animals that breastfeed; secondly, not all diphyodonts breastfeed.
At this point in scientific history, there’s not one clear evolutionary purpose for having two sets of teeth. For all we know, it could have been the side effect of another adaptation, rather than a direct one.
Functional Purpose of Baby Teeth
Baby teeth serve the purpose of helping to grind up food for swallowing and digestion. They also aid in speech development and the growth of muscles in our mouth.
Our set of baby teeth fills our mouth sufficiently to learn these processes with a similar oral setup to what we’ll have in adult life. For example, the arrangement of baby teeth allows us to experiment with a “ph-” or “f-” sound, placing the lip against the central incisors.
Our baby teeth work as placeholders for our adult teeth, almost like a set of training wheels. We have to learn to have teeth before we can get the upgraded stuff.
By the time we’re preteens, our remaining baby teeth exist in gaps the size of adult teeth. We only develop 20 baby teeth, which are eventually replaced by 32 adult teeth to fill in those spaces.
When Do We Lose Our Baby Teeth?
Children start losing their primary teeth once they’re about six years old. Usually, the front teeth (central incisors) are the first to go, then replaced by permanent ones.
The end of the baby tooth lifespan is often reached by the end of pre-teenhood, so about 12 years old. Our back teeth (molars) are usually the last to go.
Between 6-12, humans have a combination of protruded baby and adult teeth in their mouths. However, the adult teeth begin to form much before they actually emerge.
Permanent teeth develop in the jaw as soon as children are born. They form on top of the baby teeth and begin to protrude as soon as the space opens for them from tooth loss.
How to Help Your Kids Deal With Losing Baby Teeth
Losing baby teeth can be painful and potentially traumatic for kids. At the same time, it can be full of excitement.
Make sure to emphasize that losing primary teeth is one of the natural wonders of being human: there’s nothing wrong with your kid.
Also, make sure not to prematurely remove baby teeth. If a particular tooth is taking a long time to detach, opt for the care of a dental professional instead of an at-home shoelace yank.
The Tooth Fairy
Many parents opt for the story of the mythological mother of teeth: the Tooth Fairy. The tooth fairy story encourages kids to use their imaginations and feel connected to a greater pattern throughout the process of tooth loss.
The mystique around paying for children’s teeth goes back at least to the year 1200 with a “tooth fee” paid to children upon losing a tooth. Norse and Scandinavian warriors also wore children’s teeth around their necks during battle, as they were said to bring good luck.
The first explicit mention of the Tooth Fairy was in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1908. This blurb noted that “refractory” children are more willing to part with their teeth if they know that a fairy is coming to leave a gift in its place.
The Tooth Fairy we know today usually leaves quarters, but this wasn’t always the case. This Tribune blurb shows an interesting, albeit unexplained progression: the “tooth fee” exchanged teeth for money, but the Tooth Fairy was once known to bring gifts.
Today’s tooth fairy isn’t all about the cold-hard cash, though. The children’s dental company Hold the Magic maintains the origins of the tooth fairy by offering Tooth Fairy Gift Sets for purchase. These make the process of tooth loss as unforgettable and magical as possible.
These sets come with small gifts and trinkets to leave under your kids’ pillows. They have specific themes for kids who like anything from princesses to boats. Exchanging a tooth for a trinket rather than money places a pricelessness on the whole process.
Hold the Magic also offers a 1st Wiggly Tooth Collection, which contains all kinds of oral health information presented in an exciting, kid-friendly way. This is a great way to get your kids excited about dental health.
Kids may not take teeth-care advice from parents, so sometimes it’s best to call in the Tooth Fairy.
Is it Important to Care for Baby Teeth?
Just because baby teeth are temporary doesn’t mean that our parents were wrong in encouraging us to take care of them. The health of our baby teeth sets the groundwork for the state of our adult teeth.
Primary teeth have a much thinner and weaker enamel layer than adult teeth, which makes children more prone to cavities. If a child develops a cavity in one of their baby teeth, the tooth needs to be treated by getting a filling. Leaving an infected tooth intact can lead to severe pain, temperature sensitivity, and in worst-case scenarios, gum disease, and other infections.
If the cavity is allowed to go far enough without being filled, it can affect the nerves of the permanent tooth and alter that tooth’s development.
The removal of baby teeth, rather than letting them fall out naturally, can impact the growth process of adult teeth. A prematurely-removed baby tooth, due to an overly-developed cavity or accident, leaves a space in the gumline. Once this space is available, the developing permanent tooth in that space will start growing prematurely. This usually leads to an overcrowded mouth.
Consistent cavities in baby teeth can create an adult mouth in need of braces. For spacing alone, it’s important to start oral healthcare at a young age.
Furthermore, introducing oral health practices to children early on is simply a good way to solidify healthy habits in adulthood.
Caring for Baby Teeth and Gums
There are two important components to caring for primary teeth. There are technical steps, like brushing and flossing, and there’s developing healthy habits and encouraging agency in the process. Here’s a look at both.
How to Keep Baby Teeth Healthy
- Before teeth emerge, gently clean your baby’s gums using a damp towel or gauze.
- Use an infant toothbrush with a tiny smear of toothpaste on the first teeth. It’s helpful to sit with your baby lying down with their head on your lap.
- Make sure to keep the toothbrush clean by rinsing it and allowing it to dry completely.
- Once your kids hit toddler age, get a kid’s-size toothbrush and start using pea-sized amounts of toothpaste. Teach them to hold the brush at a 45-degree angle and brush for two minutes, 2-3 times per day. Make sure they brush the fronts, backs, and tops of each row of teeth.
- Aim to have your child brushing on their own by age 6.
- Teach your children to floss. We don’t have the space here to get into all the oral benefits of flossing, but it’s successful at removing plaque and possibly preventing cavities. Check out this blog for more info on which flossing device is most effective.
- Teach your kids to brush their tongue, as well. It’s likely covered in bacteria.
Making Kids Want to Keep Their Teeth Clean
Kids are often pretty lazy when it comes to brushing and flossing. If parents emphasize the importance of teeth care without making their kids tired of listening to them preach, they may stand a chance of getting their kids to keep their mouths clean.
- Give Kids a Sense of Agency
- Small factors like choosing the color of their toothbrush or the flavor of their toothpaste can make kids feel like taking care of their teeth is their choice. This may also make the teeth-care process more fun.
- Set An Example
- Avoid complaining about brushing and flossing in front of kids. They’re sponges to their parents’ beliefs. They may end up sharing those same opinions, even if they didn’t feel that way before hearing you say them.
- Always brush and floss your own teeth, and try to do so when your kids are around! They take after the people they admire.
- Cool gadgets like the Instafloss may pique kids’ interest in taking care of their teeth.
- Don’t Shame Them for Cavities
- Even though neglecting our teeth isn’t great, it’s human. Making kids feel bad for messing up might just end up with negative associations around dental care in general.
- Try instead to treat cavities like a learning experience, using positivity to encourage them to be better in the future: “good thing you’ll have another chance with your permanent teeth!”
- Make Your Dental Care Routine Fun
- We talked about fun toothpaste and toothbrushes, but there are other things you can do to encourage dental care. Try options playing music and dancing while brushing teeth, or ensuring the tooth care routine is followed by one of their favorite books.
The world of children’s teeth is rich and complicated. Yet, every step of the way serves a purpose.
In fact, as kids learn about the world, even events like losing baby teeth or getting cavities can be learning experiences.
Take every opportunity you can to educate yourself and the children in your lives about healthy teeth. Good dental health during childhood makes for beautiful smiles in adulthood.