Little girl playing and laying on the ground with a toothless smile.

Space Maintainers for Premature Tooth Loss

Published date field Last Updated:

Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Most children get their first full set of baby teeth at around three years old. Primary teeth enable them to eat their first solid foods and serve an important function as placeholders for permanent teeth. When your child loses their baby teeth prematurely, or their permanent teeth are late in erupting, a dental professional may recommend space maintainers to support their mouth until the gaps are filled with permanent teeth.

Why Are Space Maintainers Needed?

Children lose baby teeth earlier than expected for several reasons. Some experience trauma from accidents like tripping or getting hit in the mouth by a ball. Others develop early childhood cavities, also known as "baby bottle tooth decay." This can happen when babies fall asleep at either breast or bottle or walk around with a bottle for extended periods. The sugar content in the milk causes enamel to decay, which may result in tooth loss. Occasionally, some primary teeth may be absent because of a genetic condition. It's unusual for children to suffer from oral infections severe enough to cause tooth loss, although it's not impossible.

When to Consider Space Maintainers

Regardless of why a child has missing primary teeth, it's important to consider space maintainers to ensure they develop permanent teeth in the correct locations. If one primary tooth is missing for more than a short period, the child risks other teeth becoming loose because they aren't properly supported. When this happens, the loose teeth can move into the spaces intended for other teeth. This affects permanent teeth when they erupt by guiding them into incorrect positions. Suppose your child loses primary teeth to make way for permanent ones that will erupt shortly. In that case, it might not be necessary to fit maintainers. However, if permanent teeth are some time away, your child's dental professional might recommend space maintainers are a suitable option.

Types of Space Maintainer Appliances

Space maintainers come in two types: removable and fixed. Removable devices are made of acrylic and use artificial teeth or blocks of a dental material to hold open the spaces. This device works better in an older child, who can remove the appliance to clean and care for it. Partial dentures are suitable removable maintainers for children with several missing teeth.

Fixed maintainers are attached with dental cement to teeth beside the gap. These are more suitable for young children or those who have lost a back tooth. Unilateral maintainers are fixed on one side, while bilateral appliances are fixed on both sides. They can be fitted on the upper or lower jaw to maintain space for front or back teeth. The device your dentist recommends depends on the number and location of missing teeth.

  • Band-and-loop device. This device is made of stainless-steel wire and is held in place by orthodontic bands that allow the permanent tooth to erupt without blocking it. It is used when one or more baby molars are lost in one dental arch.
  • Lingual holding arch. This device maintains space for lower back teeth on both sides of the mouth.
  • Transpalatal arch. A transpalatal arch is fitted on the upper jaw to preserve space on both sides of the dental arch and held in place by wire fastened around the adjoining teeth.
  • Distal shoe appliance. This fixed appliance is fitted over the baby's first molar. It maintains the space for the first permanent molar once the tooth is lost.

These appliances are custom-made to fit each child. In most cases, the dentist takes impressions of the patient's mouth, which are sent to a dental laboratory to manufacture the device. Space maintainers are typically made from acrylic, with loops or bands made from stainless steel wires to hold them in position.

How to Care for Space Maintainers

It takes time for a child to adapt to wearing a device. During this time, the dentist keeps an eye on oral hygiene, jaw growth, and permanent teeth progression. The maintainer needs adjustment periodically and requires immediate attention if it gets damaged.

Your child will have to brush twice daily and clean between their teeth once a day. They should also avoid chewing gum, biting hard candy and fruits, and pushing or pulling the device with fingers or other objects.

Whether your child had lost their baby teeth early or their permanent teeth are late to grow in, there's no reason for undue worry. With some help from a dental professional and a space maintainer, you and your child can both feel confident about a healthy incoming smile.

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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