Our “baby” teeth begin appearing around six months of age — by age 10 or 13, they’ve largely been replaced by our permanent teeth. Though their lifespan is relatively short, baby teeth play an important role in our dental development. In fact, saving a damaged baby tooth is an extremely important treatment goal even though they will be eventually lost.
Baby teeth perform a number of functions as our mouth and facial structure develops during our formative years (infancy to early adulthood). Besides providing a means to chew food, baby teeth aid speech by providing contact points for the tongue while speaking. They help us relate to others socially through smiling and other facial gestures. And, in relation to our long-term development, they serve as both guides and “placeholders” for our permanent teeth until they’re ready to erupt.
Thus, a permanent tooth’s development could be stymied if its counterpart baby tooth is lost prematurely. It could come in misaligned or not erupt fully if adjacent teeth have drifted into the open space. The resulting malocclusion (bad bite) could require long-term orthodontic treatment with higher costs than treatments to save the baby tooth and avoid the misalignment.
There are various treatments to prevent and save at-risk baby teeth. Even a badly decayed tooth might be saved with a pulpotomy, a similar treatment to a root canal but less invasive. This is often followed with a stainless steel crown to cover the remaining tooth and restore some of its form and function.
If it’s not feasible to save a baby tooth, we may recommend installing a space maintainer that prevents other teeth from drifting into the resulting space until the permanent tooth is ready to erupt. This orthodontic appliance usually consists of a metal band cemented to an adjacent tooth with an attached stiff wire loop that extends across the gap and rests against the tooth on the other side. Although effective, space maintainers can break or become dislodged, require extra monitoring and are often cosmetically unappealing.
In any event, the primary goal should be to save a baby tooth, if possible. Doing so will prevent more serious long-term problems for permanent teeth.