A Tale of Two Sets of Teeth

Most people have two sets of teeth during their life: a set of primary or “baby” teeth and the permanent or "adult" teeth.

Besides helping children chew and pronounce words, the primary teeth hold a place in the jaws for the permanent teeth, which begin to push through the gums, or "erupt," as the primary teeth are shed.

While most children have 20 primary teeth—10 in each of the upper and lower jaws—these teeth eventually are replaced by 32 permanent teeth, 16 in each jaw.

The first permanent molars usually erupt between ages 6 and 7 years. For that reason, they often are called the "six-year molars." They are among the "extra" permanent teeth in that they don’t replace an existing primary tooth. These important teeth sometimes are mistaken for primary teeth. However, they are permanent and must be cared for properly if they are to last throughout the child’s lifetime. The six-year molars also help determine the shape of the lower face and affect the position and health of other permanent teeth.

Most children have 28 of their permanent teeth by age 13 years. These include four central incisors, four lateral incisors, eight premolars, four canines and eight molars.

The last of the permanent teeth to appear are called "third molars," or “wisdom teeth.” They usually begin to erupt between ages 17 and 21 years. Because they are so far back in the mouth, third molars often are not needed for chewing and are difficult to keep clean. Your dentist may recommend their removal to prevent potential complications when third molars are erupted partially or are impacted.

Protect permanent teeth by brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, cleaning between teeth once a day with floss or another interdental cleaner and scheduling regular dental visits.

© 2017 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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Top Tips for Good Oral Care During Childhood

  • Brushing and flossing
    Begin using toothpaste to brush your child's teeth when he (or she) is 2 years old. Young children tend to swallow toothpaste when brushing, rather than spitting it out. Introduce fluoride toothpaste when your child is old enough not to swallow it. As soon as two teeth touch each other, floss between them once a day. You can use regular floss or special plastic floss holders.

  • Dental visit
    New parents often ask, "When should my child first see a dentist?” Your child should see a dentist by his or her first birthday.

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