Why Do We Have Two Sets of Natural Teeth in Our Lifetimes?

Did you see the news item last week about the UK baby born with two front teeth? Premature tooth eruption is something of a rarity, occurring about once in every couple thousand births. But unless it’s linked to some other medical condition, it’s usually not of much concern beyond the discomfort it can cause a breastfeeding mother and the risk of choking, should the teeth come loose early, as well.

This last point might make you wonder: Why do we lose our first teeth at all – those “baby teeth” or “milk teeth,” as most people call them but which dentists call “deciduous” or “primary” teeth? Why do we have two sets of natural teeth in our lifetimes?

The Wikipedia explanation is concise and as good as any:

Deciduous teeth are considered essential in the development of the oral cavity by dental researchers and dentists. The permanent teeth replacements develop from the same tooth bud as the deciduous teeth; this provides a guide for permanent teeth eruption. Also the muscles of the jaw and the formation of the jaw bones depend on the primary teeth in order to maintain the proper space for permanent teeth. The roots of deciduous teeth provide an opening for the permanent teeth to erupt. These teeth are also needed for proper development of a child’s speech and chewing of food.

Since the infant human skull is too small to hold a full set of adult teeth, the 20 primary teeth serve as sort of placeholders until the jaw and skull are developed enough to hold up to 32 permanent teeth. As they make way, the primary teeth become loose and eventually fall out.

Many cultures have traditions marking this rite of passage – an important developmental step on the road to adulthood. In some Eastern societies, the baby tooth is thrown in a symbolic direction while making a wish. In the West, we have the Tooth Fairy and similar figures for whom children leave their teeth under their pillow, in a glass of water or even buried in the ground, and expect money or some other gift in return.

Judging from the sheer number of online discussions about the matter, it seems that the money question – “How much?” – causes parents no small amount of worry. According to Delta Dental of Minnesota’s last poll on the matter, amounts vary widely. While, nationally, the average was $2.13 per tooth, this included a low of 5 cents per tooth and a high of $50 (!) per tooth. (Rates can be tracked on DDM’s website devoted to the matter.) At least one parenting blogger has done her own poll, which showed a little lower overall average: $1.15 per tooth, with a top rate of $5.

More interesting to me in these discussions, though, were the suggestions of ways to make the rite of passage just a little more special, such as these from a parenting column on St. Louis Today:

My husband and I have the perfect solution for the Tooth Fairy: a foreign currency. Our now-useless collection of lira and shekels delight our children. Since the advent of the Euro, there is no exchange rate. Many of the foreign coins are quite fun to look at. Additionally, we pick ones with holes or pretty images to slip under the pillow. We even ask friends to pick a couple up while traveling. I love to hear my son brag to his friends that he received 1,000 Lira for his first tooth. — Amy Gholson in Creve Coeur

* * *

At our house, the Tooth Fairy leaves a freshly ironed $1 bill for each tooth that is under the pillow. Somehow, the crispness of the bill has made it more special. — B. Roesch in St. Louis

The columnists also added some ideas of her own:

Start your own family traditions by leaving a little glitter or confetti under their pillows, alongside some coupons for a special treat or a movie. If either of them likes to draw, art pencils or markers could be fun. Small electronic games, tiny cars or planes, puzzles and the above suggestions are other fun ideas. It can be whatever you feel would be a unique token of your love and caring. It’s nice to make the event special but don’t worry about making it perfect. Just have fun with your children.

But what if the Tooth Fairy forgets to stop by? There are some creative tips out there for finessing that situation, as well.

So, how about you? What traditions did your family have when you were a kid and lost a tooth? What did the Tooth Fairy leave for you? If you have kids and a Tooth Fairy who deals in cash for teeth, how much does she pay? Or does she offer something other than money? If you’ve missed a visit, how did you cover up for it?

I encourage you to share your own experiences and opinions in the comments.

Images by Lucy and wakefielddavid, via Flickr

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