This cut view of a child's skull shows permanent teeth located above and below the deciduous teeth prior to exfoliation. The deciduous mandibular central incisors have already been exfoliated.
Deciduous teeth, otherwise known as milk teeth, baby teeth, temporary teeth and now more commonly primary teeth, are the first set of teeth in the growth development of humans and other diphyodont mammals. They develop during the embryonic stage of development and erupt—that is, they become visible in the mouth—during infancy. They are usually lost and replaced by permanent teeth, but in the absence of permanent replacements, they can remain functional for many years.
Primary dentition stage
Primary teeth start to form during the embryo phase of pregnancy. The development of primary teeth starts at the sixth week of tooth development as the dental lamina. This process starts at the midline and then spreads back into the posterior region. By the time the embryo is eight weeks old, there are ten buds on the upper and lower arches that will eventually become the primary (deciduous) dentition. These teeth will continue to form until they erupt in the mouth. In the primary dentition there are a total of twenty teeth: five per quadrant and ten per arch. The eruption of these teeth ("teething") begins at the age of six months and continues until twenty-five to thirty-three months of age during the primary dentition period. Usually, the first teeth seen in the mouth are the mandibular centrals and the last are the maxillary second molars.
The primary dentition is made up of central incisors, lateral incisors, canines, first molars, and secondary molars; there is one in each quadrant, making a total of four of each tooth. All of these are gradually replaced with a permanent counterpart except for the primary first and second molars; they are replaced by premolars. These are designated in the Universal Tooth Designation System by the capital letters A through T. The replacement of primary teeth begins around age six, when the permanent teeth start to appear in the mouth, resulting in mixed dentition. The erupting permanent teeth cause root resorption, where the permanent teeth push on the roots of the primary teeth, causing the roots to be dissolved by odontoclasts (as well as surrounding alveolar bone by osteoclasts) and become absorbed by the forming permanent teeth. The process of shedding primary teeth and their replacement by permanent teeth is called exfoliation. This may last from age six to age twelve. By age twelve there usually are only permanent teeth remaining.
Teething age of primary teeth:
- Central incisors : 6–12 months
- Lateral incisors : 9–16 months
- First molars : 13–19 months
- Canine teeth : 16–23 months
- Second molars : 22–33 months
Primary teeth are considered essential in the development of the oral cavity by dental researchers and dental professionals. The permanent teeth replacements develop from the same tooth germs as the primary teeth, which provide guides for permanent teeth eruptions. Also the muscles of the jaw and the formation of the jaw bones depend on the primary teeth to maintain proper spacing for permanent teeth. The roots of primary teeth provide an opening for the permanent teeth to erupt. The primary teeth are also needed for proper development of a child's speech and chewing of food.
In almost all European languages the primary teeth are called "milk teeth". In the United States, the term "baby teeth" is common. In some Asian countries they are referred to as "fall teeth" since they will eventually fall out.
Various cultures have customs relating to the loss of deciduous teeth. In English-speaking countries, the tooth fairy is a popular childhood fiction that a fairy rewards children when their baby teeth fall out. Children typically place a tooth under their pillow at night. The fairy is said to take the tooth and replace it with money or small gifts while they sleep. In some places in Australia, Sweden and Norway, the children put the tooth in a glass of water. In medieval Scandinavia there was a similar tradition, surviving to the present day in Iceland, of tannfé ('tooth-money'), a gift to a child when it cuts its first tooth.
Other traditions are associated with mice or other rodents because of their sharp, everlasting teeth. The character Ratón Pérez appears in the tale of The Vain Little Mouse. A Ratoncito Pérez was used by Colgate in marketing toothpaste in Venezuela and Spain. In Italy, the Tooth Fairy (Fatina) is also often replaced by a small mouse (topino). In France and in French-speaking Belgium, this character is called la petite souris ("The Little Mouse"). From parts of lowland Scotland comes a tradition similar to the fairy mouse: a white fairy rat who purchases the teeth with coins.
Several traditions concern throwing the shed teeth. In Turkey, Cyprus, Mexico, and Greece, children traditionally throw their fallen "milk teeth" onto the roof of their house while making a wish. Similarly, in some Asian countries, such as India, Korea, Nepal, Philippines, and the Vietnam, when a child loses a tooth, the usual custom is that he or she should throw it onto the roof if it came from the lower jaw, or into the space beneath the floor if it came from the upper jaw. While doing this, the child shouts a request for the tooth to be replaced with the tooth of a mouse. This tradition is based on the fact that the teeth of mice grow for their entire lives, a characteristic of all rodents.
In Japan, a different variation calls for lost upper teeth to be thrown straight down to the ground and lower teeth straight up into the air; the idea is that incoming teeth will grow in straight. Some parts of China follow a similar tradition by throwing the teeth from the lower jaw onto the roof and burying the teeth from the upper jaw underground, as a symbol of urging the permanent teeth to grow faster towards the right direction.
The Sri Lankan tradition is to throw the milk teeth onto the roof or a tree in the presence of a squirrel (Funambulus palmarum). The child then tells the squirrel to take the old tooth in return for a new one.
In Pakistan, children bury their teeth on their roof or in their garden in the hopes of a new sibling.
The tradition of throwing a baby tooth up into the sky to the sun or to Allah and asking for a better tooth to replace it is common in Middle Eastern countries (including Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan). It may originate in a pre-Islamic offering and certainly dates back to at least the 13th century, when Izz bin Hibat Allah Al Hadid mentions it.
In premodern Britain, lost teeth were commonly burnt to destroy them. This was partly for religious reasons connected with the Last Judgement and partly for fear of what might happen if an animal got them. A rhyme might be said as a blessing:
Old tooth, new tooth
Pray God send me a new tooth
- Illustrated Dental Embryology, Histology, and Anatomy, Bath-Balogh and Fehrenbach, Elsevier, 2011, page 255
- American Dental Association, Primary teeth at http://www.ada.org/sections/scienceAndResearch/pdfs/patient_56.pdf
- Cleasby, Richard and Gudbrand Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, 2nd edn by William A. Craigie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), s.v. tannfé (first edition available at http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~kurisuto/germanic/oi_cleasbyvigfusson_about.html).
- ¡Producto Registrado!: Agosto 1998: Centuria Dental.
- Al Hamdani, Muwaffak and Wenzel, Marian. "The Worm in the Tooth", Folklore, 1966, vol. 77, pp. 60-64.
- Steve Roud (2006), "Teeth: disposal of", The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, ISBN 978-0-14-194162-2
- Gray anatomy skull of 6-year old child showing both sets of teeth
- Primary dentition - Baby teeth chart Morphology and eruption time (teething age) of primary teeth.