There is an old wives’ tale that a woman should expect to lose a tooth for each of her pregnancies because each baby leaches the calcium from her teeth.
Like a lot of old wives’ tales, it is mostly a myth, but losing teeth during your childbearing years has some basis in fact, but not for that reason.
A baby does not leach calcium from the mother’s teeth, said Stefanie Russell, DDS, associate clinical professor at New York University College of Dentistry. “Physiologically, that’s not what happens.” If a pregnant woman isn’t getting enough calcium in her diet, the baby may start to take calcium from her bones during bone remodeling, which is the lifelong process in which bones continually remake themselves. The baby does not take it out of her teeth.
But pregnancy can affect the mother’s gums and the tissues that support the teeth, Dr. Russell said. A pregnant woman may develop gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums, or periodontal disease, which is a serious inflammation and infection of the gums. “So, if you did have repeated pregnancies and you had periodontal disease, that could have an effect on tooth loss,” she said.
Pregnant women are also more prone to tooth decay, also known as dental caries, which can also lead to tooth loss if it is left untreated. Pregnant women tend to eat more frequently to help control nausea, among other reasons, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Constant eating coupled with not regularly brushing and flossing can lead to tooth decay.
Another factor is that pregnant women may put off seeing a dentist if they have a problem during their pregnancy, Dr. Russell said. At one time, dentists often told pregnant women to come back after the baby was born. “What happened was women would come in with decay or a tooth that needed extraction or needed a root canal, and the dentist would defer it, and then the woman wouldn’t come back after she gave birth,” she said. When dental care is put off for too long, a problem tooth may no longer be amenable to treatment and has to be pulled, she added.
If you have any kind of dental problem, such as painful or swollen gums, or a toothache, you should see your dentist, Dr. Russell said. Don’t put it off until after you give birth. Having any kind of dentistry done during pregnancy is completely safe.
Some women may fear going to the dentist for a toothache while they are pregnant and instead start taking a lot of pain medications, she noted. “What often happens is that they’ll take too much pain medication and that can result in a problem. It’s better to get the issue looked at and treated rather than trying to cover it with pain medication.”
“There is nothing that a dentist can do in the dental chair that that will impact the fetus,” Dr. Russell said. There may be some medications that should be avoided, such as the antibiotic tetracycline which can have an effect on the fetus’s developing teeth, but other medications can be used instead.
Even dental X-rays are safe during pregnancy, she pointed out. Years ago, dental X-rays used much more radiation than they do now. “The X-rays that we use now, especially the new digital ones, use a very, very low amount of radiation,” she said. This low level is safe during pregnancy, she stressed.
When someone sees a dentist for a problem, the dentist takes only those X-rays that are needed to determine the nature of the problem, she explained. “It’s better to get a dental X-ray if there’s some kind of problem rather than trying to do any treatment without the X ray.”
Even with the low amount of radiation in modern dental X-rays, the patient is covered from knees to shoulders with a lead-lined apron and a lead-lined collar that protects the thyroid gland in the throat. “We can even put a double apron on if people are concerned, but the FDA says there’s no risk with normal and customary X-rays,” Dr. Russell said. “You may want to avoid something like a CAT scan that is used for orthodontics. But the typical single X-rays that we use for diagnosis and treatment are safe.”
Dr. Russell is also director of the NYU Bellevue Hospital Prenatal Oral Health Program in Manhattan. The program has dentists that perform dental examination on women during their regular prenatal care. “We integrate oral health into their prenatal care,” she said.
Good dental health in the mother has a beneficial effect on the baby, she added. Bacteria that cause tooth decay can be transferred from the mother to the baby during pregnancy and after the birth. “A lot of early childhood caries could be prevented by actually taking care of caries in the mother during pregnancy,” she explained.
Speaking of babies, they should start regular visits to the dentist early, Dr. Russell said. A baby should have a first visit to the dentist before their first birthday. The dentist will check the growth and development of the teeth to ensure everything is going well and the baby gets used to being in a dentist’s chair.