Parents often marvel at how quickly their children’s first set of teeth seem to come and go. No sooner do those 20 little teeth grow in then they start popping out—or so it seems. That’s why some parents resist having major dental work done on baby teeth, which are going to fall out anyway—or so the reasoning goes. If a child’s primary tooth is badly decayed or injured in an accident, wouldn’t pulling it be easier and less expensive that treating it?
Often, the answer is yes—but that’s not necessarily in the best interest of your child. Baby teeth have an important role to play in a child’s dental development—and they also have a job to do right now.
Until your child is about six, he or she will rely exclusively on baby teeth for eating comfortably, speaking normally, and smiling happily. Some of those primary teeth will be around until the age of 12. They need to stay healthy to function well and remain free of pain. Not only that, baby teeth help guide their permanent replacements into position: A baby tooth being pushed out by an adult tooth will not “let go” until the new tooth is ready to emerge. That’s why a dentist may recommend certain dental treatments that might seem more appropriate for adult teeth.
For example, a badly decayed tooth may need more than a simple filling to save it; instead, root canal treatment may be recommended. The type of root-canal procedure usually performed on children is called a pulpotomy, and it is both less expensive and less invasive than an adult root canal procedure. It involves removing diseased pulp tissue from inside the tooth and then sealing the tooth against reinfection. A tooth that has been injured severely enough to have its pulp exposed may also need this treatment.
After root canal treatment, a baby tooth may also need to be capped—usually with a stainless steel crown, though white crowns that look more natural are becoming available. This restoration will allow the tooth to function normally until it’s replaced by a permanent one. But the procedure is nothing to fear: A child undergoing root canal treatment will be kept comfortable with appropriate local anesthesia, anti-anxiety medication, and/or conscious sedation.
Of course, there are times when a tooth can’t be saved, and an extraction is the only option. After a baby tooth is extracted, the child is sometimes fitted with a very simple orthodontic appliance called a space maintainer. This device prevents neighboring teeth from drifting into an empty space meant for a tooth that hasn’t yet grown in; if this happens, it could throw off the bite. Space maintainers are a good insurance policy against the type of orthodontic problems that a prematurely lost baby tooth can cause.
It’s important to keep in mind that all of the procedures mentioned here are designed to prevent more serious (and costly) problems down the road. So maybe when it’s time for your child’s baby teeth to fall out on their own, you’ll want to thank them for a job well done!