One of the primary purposes of a child’s “baby teeth” is to reserve space for the adult teeth growing underneath. Typically, baby teeth fall out once the adult tooth begins pushing its way through the surface and is ready to emerge. However, in some cases, children may have a baby tooth removed early if they get it knocked out in an accident or have it removed due to dental decay. When this happens, there is a chance that the tooth underneath is not yet ready to emerge, causing a gap to be present in the tooth line. Unfortunately, some adult teeth do not grow in until the child is 12-14 years old, and your pediatrician may be concerned about later problems with the permanent teeth that could be caused by the gap.
According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, when baby teeth are lost too soon, adjacent teeth may try to fill the space by tilting or drifting toward the gap. This is a problem because baby teeth often guide the permanent teeth into place, meaning a child may end up with a crowded or crooked smile once their adult teeth have emerged. To avoid this scenario, a pediatric dentist on your dental plan will likely suggest space maintainers. Space maintainers are made out of either metal or plastic and are custom-made to fit into a child’s mouth. The purpose of a space maintainer is to keep the gap left by a baby tooth open and to prevent movement of the other teeth. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry suggests that it is much easier to correct the problem in advance with space maintainers than to fix it afterward with extensive orthodontic treatment.
Once a child’s adult tooth has successfully emerged and taken its natural place, the space maintainer is removed. Until then, it is important that the child: avoids gum and sticky foods; keeps the space maintainer clean with regular brushing and flossing; does not pull or try to adjust the space maintainer; and continues visiting the dentist regularly. That way, your pediatric dentist can monitor the progress of the child’s tooth growth and ensure he or she has a beautiful – and permanent – smile!