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Taking Care Of Preemie Teeth

When the teeth of babies who are born prematurely come in, they may lack protective enamel and be more prone to decay and staining. The more premature the infant, the more likely she is to have this condition, which is known as enamel hypoplasia.

Teeth are fully formed under the gums at birth, and the enamel on one or more teeth can become damaged when lifesaving respirator tubes press against gums for prolonged periods. In 40 to 70 percent of cases, the hypoplasia is due to illnesses, or insufficient calcium from feeding problems or difficulty absorbing nutrients.

Parents can head off a variety of enamel decay-related problems  -- such as cavities and damage to adult teeth that are forming below the gums  -- by taking their infant to the dentist within six months of her first tooth eruption, and no later than age 1, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Although this recommendation applies to all kids, "for children born prematurely, it can be particularly important," says Carrie Havelka, D.D.S., a pediatric dentist at Boston's Children's Hospital and the mother of 3-year-old twins who were born preterm.

For kids who are especially cavity-prone, a dentist can "paint" a white plastic material over affected baby teeth to help protect them from further decay and to fill in any cosmetic imperfections.

Just as important as dental visits is a bedtime routine of cleaning your baby's teeth and gums with an age-appropriate toothbrush and a small amount of toothpaste. "This helps remove decay-causing material," says Dr. Havelka, "and also gets the child used to having something in her mouth, readying her for brushing her teeth on her own later on."