child with baby teeth smiling

What Are Primary Teeth?

The eruption of a baby's first tooth is a special moment. Young children develop 20 primary teeth altogether, and by adulthood 32 permanent teeth have taken their place. But why do you need two sets of teeth?

Eruption Sequence

Teeth typically erupt in a young child's mouth in a certain sequence, which you can track on an eruption chart like this one from the American Dental Association (ADA). Most babies are born without teeth, but the fully formed crowns are inside their gums, ready to emerge. By the age of 6 months, the first tooth has popped out from the gum. The lower central incisors and upper central incisors usually appear first, according to the ADA, and they're followed by the lateral incisors (the teeth right next to the top and bottom front teeth). The first molars often erupt next, and then canines. The final teeth to erupt are the second molars. By the age of 3, most children have all their primary teeth.

What Are the Differences Between Primary Teeth and Adult Teeth?

Primary teeth are also called baby teeth, milk teeth and deciduous teeth. They're noticeably smaller and whiter than adult teeth. Compared to permanent teeth, the roots of the first set of teeth are shorter and thinner to allow them to fall out. The whiter coloring of primary teeth is because the enamel is thinner than the enamel on permanent teeth, which causes adult teeth to look yellower. What's more, baby teeth lack the bumps on the end of the incisors called mamelons that adult teeth often display when they emerge.

What's the Importance of Baby Teeth?

Although you lose deciduous teeth, their temporary presence has a long-lasting effect. The first set of teeth teaches children to speak properly and to chew their food. Another important function of baby teeth is to hold the position that the permanent teeth will move into when they erupt. According to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, losing a primary tooth before it's ready to fall out can cause problems with the adult teeth. A lost primary tooth means the available space for the adult teeth is reduced, resulting in crowding.

Caring for Babies' and Children's Teeth

Babies and young children can't care for their teeth, so it's up to parents to help out. The ADA advises parents to begin oral care for babies even before the first tooth emerges by wiping the gums with a clean, wet washcloth or gauze square after every meal. Parents should brush babies' first teeth with water and supervise toddlers when they're brushing their teeth. Don't give babies pacifiers that have been dipped in a sweet substance or allow babies to fall asleep while sucking a bottle that contains milk, formula, juice or sweetened liquid.

A child's first set of teeth are an opportunity to learn all about good oral care habits. If their deciduous teeth are healthy, they pave the way for healthy adult teeth, too. Teach your children to look after their teeth, and they can reap the benefits for the rest of their lives.

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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