Folklore, fairytales, and fictions abound about children's teeth. Primary teeth, also called baby or milk teeth, are the first set of pearly whites that end up under pillows and keep the tooth fairy in business. A kids' smile is continually evolving and changing, from first bicuspid to final permanent molar; with so much happening, it's no surprise that myths abound. Here, we shine some light on some common misconceptions—from teething to toothpaste, we’ve got you covered.
1. "There’s no need to brush baby teeth."
It's pointless to brush those little milk teeth, right? Think again—here's why: while your baby's precious first teeth will eventually fall out, they play a far more essential role than looking cute in those sweet baby photos. Baby teeth help kids eat properly, providing them with good nutrition, but that's not all. They're also crucial for facial structure and act as placeholders for future adult teeth. But there's more—milk teeth aid in early speech development, helping your little one to pronounce sounds like "th,” “sh," and "l." Your sweet babe may suffer long-term consequences if impacted by premature decay, which could affect the way their permanent teeth eventually grow in.
Help build a lifetime of good dental habits early, even before the first tooth appears. Rug a soft, damp rag across your baby's gums to help reduce bacteria and get those burgeoning teeth off to a fantastic start. And when that first wee straggler pops through, give it a brush—even the teensiest teeth need tending.
2. "Cavities in baby teeth don’t matter."
Another misnomer hinging on the supposed unimportance of baby teeth because they will eventually fall out,
Dismissing the importance of baby teeth because they'll eventually fall out and thinking that what happens to these primary teeth is inconsequential is not just wrong—it could cause your little harm. Unfortunately, cavities are more than just an unsightly cosmetic blemish; they can cause pain and discomfort and even abscess if left untreated. Ouch! Cavities also harbor bacteria, which can spread through the bloodstream and impact your kid’s overall health and wellbeing.
If you suspect a cavity may have formed on your child’s tooth, go to the dentist and have it checked out. Baby teeth that have decay should be treated, either with a tooth-colored filling or another form of restoration—this will help bolster the baby tooth and help it stay put until it’s ready to fall out naturally. Always better safe than sorry.
3. "Kids should never chew gum."
While you don’t want them to get sticky gum in their hair (or your pet’s fur)—gum can actually be good for kids’ teeth—as long as it’s sugar-free. Without sugar, bacteria are kept at bay and won’t produce enough acid to cause damage to those pearly whites. What’s more, the act of chewing increases the amount of saliva in the mouth, which can help keep cavities at bay.
4. "Fruit juice in a sippy cup won’t hurt my little one’s teeth."
What do soda and fruit juice have in common? Both can have almost equal amounts of sugar—surprising but true. 100% fruit juice may be yummy, but juice sipped from a sippy bottle may be a recipe for cavities. Don’t fault the fruit or the juice—blame it on the sugar.
The bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar and starches, releasing acids that can lead to cavities. Sugar causes bacteria in the mouth to become acidic; the more sugar there is, the more acidic the mouth becomes. The acid breaks down tooth enamel, compromising the integrity of those pearly whites, leading to possible cavities and tooth decay. Pretty much any drink other than water—including milk, juice, sports drinks have sugar—which is why water is the smartest drink for your little one to drink.
While it’s mostly about the sugar, it’s also about the sippy cup. If your kids are slowly sucking down juice from a sippy cup throughout the day, it means their little teeth are taking a constant bath in sugar. Yikes! If you offer your child milk or juice, give it to them with a meal or snack and have them drink it in one sitting, which allows the mouth's pH to return to normal, neutralizing plaque acids instead of sugar-coating teeth which each little sip.
5. "Cavities are only caused by sugar."
Sugar takes the cake when it comes to cavities, but it's not the only nefarious agent in town. Starches can increase the amount of plaque in the mouth, which sticks to teeth. If not removed regularly (yup, at least every six months), it can cause teeth to decay or form cavities.
Another cavity pitfall is being too groovy. Yes, you read it right! Deep grooves in teeth are another cause of decay and cavities, and some kids have sealants put on their teeth to keep bacteria out of those tooth trenches. A quick rinse and brush after meals can help keep those pesky bacteria and plaque at bay.
6. "Kids don’t need to use fluoride toothpaste till they’re older."
Unfortunately, tooth decay is possible as soon as the first little tooth comes in, which is why the American Dental Association recommends fluoride (in the form of fluoride toothpaste) to help strengthen kids' teeth help prevent cavities.
Small children, however, are likely to swallow toothpaste — so use about the size of a grain of rice for kids ages 2 and under, and a pea-sized amount for ages 3 and older. Once your child can spit when brushing, use a pea-size dot. Older kids need just a thin ribbon.
Fluoride can actually reverse tooth decay in its nascent stages by remineralizing weak areas of the enamel. And when kids get sufficient fluoride while their teeth are coming in, it will be incorporated into their permanent teeth, providing long-term benefits. Many kids don't get enough of this mineral, particularly those that only drink bottled water or live somewhere with no fluoride in the municipal water source.
7. "Kids can brush their own teeth."
While preschoolers can technically brush their teeth, it doesn't mean they're doing a good job. Young children typically don't have the fine motor skills necessary to brush their little teeth effectively until they're older. A study published in the Journal of Periodontal Research found that five-year-olds only brushed 25% of their teeth' surfaces (which means most of those sweet mouths are not so sweet).
With babies and toddlers, parents should do the brushing and flossing. Preschoolers can begin taking some ownership of their teeth, with supervision, to make sure they got them all. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on kids’ brushing and flossing until at least age seven or eight—their happy teeth will thank you.
8. "Baby teeth come in at six months."
If only babies came with manuals and calendars announcing when developmental milestones were about to commence. IRL, baby teeth can erupt as early as three months or as late as fourteen months—but their journey begins far before that point. A baby's twenty primary teeth start to develop between the sixth and eighth week of fetal development and are present in the jaw at birth.
All twenty teeth will come in by the time a child is three years old. The chart below shows the approximate times' teeth will erupt and fall out.
9. "Binkies and thumb sucking are bad for teeth."
Simply put, pacifiers pacify—and when you’re dealing with a squalling infant, that’s no small feat. Beyond helping babes self-soothe, binkies also decrease the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Thumb sucking is another self-soothing behavior that starts even before your little one enters this world.
Many parents-to-be have caught glimpses of their babes in utero displaying this natural reflex on sonograms.
Both pacifiers and sucking on thumbs help calm babies and toddlers, even aiding them to fall asleep. And the great news is that neither behavior is likely to cause any long-term harm or dental issues. Most kids stop without much parental intervention before any problems arise. Use of either up to toddlerhood is unlikely to affect your kid’s teeth in any way that will necessitate regular visits to the orthodontist. Yes—overuse of both could be bad for your little one's teeth, but if used only at bed or nap time, will likely not pose any long-term problem.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents wean their children from using a pacifier by age two and from thumb or finger sucking by age three to prevent any fluctuations in tooth position and jaw alignment. However, if a child continues sucking on a pacifier or their thumb past age four (when adult teeth start coming in), they may run the risk of their mouth growing around their pacifier, resulting in a pronounced arch in their front teeth. If you're concerned, ask your dentist to keep track of your child's jaw and facial development if not weaned from pacifier use and thumb sucking after age four.
Developing good habits from an early age will help kids live their healthiest lives. Learning how to care for their teeth and gums early on will set children up for oral health success. As dentists like to say: a happy mouth is a happy life.