It's easy to consider baby teeth expendable. After all, they're temporary by design. But until your child has a full adult set of choppers at about 12 years old, those tiny teeth play a big role: They're not only essential for chewing and thus for good nutrition, but they also affect lifelong oral health. "Baby teeth set the foundation for a child's permanent teeth," says Beverly Largent, DMD, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
Unfortunately, that foundation is shaky for many kids. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tooth decay in 2- to 5-year-olds increased between 1988 and 2004 -- while it decreased for everyone older. One reason for more cavities in little kids, dental experts say, may be nonstop drinking (think the ever-present juice bottle or sippy cup) and nibbling. The starch in food turns into simple sugars that nourish decay-causing bacteria, which then secrete the acid that erodes enamel. For grazing kids, the tooth-destruction scenario repeats over and over, wreaking havoc early on.
When a baby tooth teeming with bacteria falls out, it doesn't leave a clean slate -- instead, bacterial organisms immediately start chomping away at the new permanent tooth. So keep those little pearly whites pristine, and you can save your child from dental distress now and in the future. Just follow our experts' key tips for caring for baby teeth.