Teething, Dr. Google, and Spurious Correlations

Ugh, teething. The bane of our existence when our babies are still relatively new and nonverbal. They cry, they drool, and they can’t tell us what’s wrong. As parents, we’re naturally susceptible to anxiety about keeping our babies safe and free from pain. We want to give our babies the right remedy, right away — we don’t want them to suffer! But we DO want a clear explanation for why they’re upset. That’s the way our human brains work. And that has (for centuries!) made us vulnerable to advice that might or might not be accurate, especially in the internet age. Dr. Google is, after all, a notorious quack.

Last year, the FDA issued a warning about Hyland’s teething tablets that eventually led the company to discontinue manufacturing that product. Now this week the FSA is telling us that teething products containing the local anesthetic benzocaine, like Orajel, are dangerous for little ones, too. So how are we supposed to fix things when our baby is popping like Macklemore at Goodwill?

As it turns out, teething is not a crisis, regardless of how it feels to us in the trenches of infancy. This is a great chance to practice CTFD Parenting, even. Here’s what we know from the scientific evidence available on teething:

  1. It takes about a week. The “life cycle” of a new tooth eruption is about 8 days. In broad terms, the average baby cuts their first tooth around 6 months old, and pops a new one roughly once a month until they’re a little over 2 years old. So…for roughly one week a month, teething might explain what’s going on. The rest of the time? It’s probably something else.
  2. The drool is real. This is when all those bibs you got as baby gifts will finally justify the storage space they take up.
  3. But the pain might be more in our heads than in theirs. Gum irritation happens, but the evidence suggests that the discomfort is mild and intermittent.
  4. Irritability. Holy shit, the irritability. Theirs and ours. In the days leading up to and immediately following a breakthrough, even generally serene babies might be extra fussy. But if they’re inconsolable, or if the fussiness/sleeplessness/changes in appetite go on for weeks, the grouchies unfortunately can’t be efficiently blamed on teeth lurking beneath the surface.

WTF does a desperate parent do when the culprit IS teething? Basically, distract them.

  • Rub their gums with your finger. Yeah, really. They will likely also want to do a lot of comfort nursing during this time. If your nipples can take it, that’s the cheapest DIY solution. Luckily, we have other options, too.
  • Silicone or wood teethers. If your baby is feeling some pressure or irritation in their gums, biting down on something can help. A cursory search this morning showed me that you all have a wiiiiide variety of cute choices today, like Chewbeads and loulou LOLLIPOP. (Seriously, the taco. I can’t. [And no, those are not affiliate links. I get jack squat if you click through to buy.])
  • Chewing on a tooth brush. I hear that this method promotes good dental hygiene by helping them get familiar with the feeling of brushing. From personal experience, I will tell you that this option is really only for babies who are well coordinated enough not to poke themselves in the eye with it while their parents are sitting within arm’s reach. Ahem.
  • Mesh feeders with frozen fruit inside. Maybe not frozen blueberries, unless you’re looking for a photo op.
  • Water play. Even if your baby doesn’t love bath time, dipping their fingers or toes under the faucet can help redirect their attention to new sensations.
  • Take them for a walk outside. The novelty of different sounds and smells out there might work.
  • Listen to music. Go ahead, sing along. Your baby loves the sound of your voice. Dancing, swaying, and/or bouncing on the ball are good, too, as long as baby agrees.
  • Lots of snuggling. If you haven’t yet figured out your baby carrier, this is a good time to do it. For many babies, being ON their parents is all they want, and you need both hands to get through your day.

If your baby has a high fever (above 100.4), vomiting, diarrhea, or other signs of distress, then the problem is likely not their teeth. Check in with your pediatrician or family doctor about the severity and duration of the symptoms.

If your baby is just a fussy mess, I feel you. When you’ve ruled out colic, illness, and injury, then what you’re left with might just be a developmental stage for which the only cure is time. This is when self care pays dividends for your whole family. Do people keep telling you that you can’t pour from an empty cup? It’s no joke. Taking care of yourself helps strengthen your ability to take care of your family.

If you are wondering why I haven’t discussed amber teething necklaces, homeopathic remedies, or other things that you might have heard of as natural cures, it’s because we don’t yet have the scientific research to back them up in terms of safety or efficacy. It’s painful to type that now, 7 years after I used every single one of them with our own baby. We were absolute beginners and sleep deprived and desperate for an instruction manual to follow, and we were willing to try anything to relieve what we perceived as pain. And what’s more, at the time, it really seemed to us like they worked. I put the anecdote in anecdotal evidence back then.

In hindsight, I wish we had invested less in advice from strangers online and more in help at home so that we could have responded to our baby’s fussing with the patience and confidence that comes from being well cared for ourselves. But you know what Dr. Google says about hindsight…

If you’re feeling lost at sea in the fourth trimester, don’t suffer alone. Get thee a postpartum doula. And come to the Baby Lunch Date for some tea and sympathy!

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The necessary disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, nor do I play one on TV. This post is not intended to be, nor should it be interpreted as, medical advice! You should always consult your physician when you have questions about your baby’s health. I am a librarian and postpartum doula giving you tools to make your own parenting decisions. In order to present you with up to date, factual information, I put this post together using the following references:

Moyer, Melinda Wenner. “Parents Love to Blame Teething for All Their Babies’ Miseries. They’re Missing the Real Cause.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 4 May 2015, www.slate.com/articles/life/the_kids/2015/05/teething_symptoms_in_babies_are_not_as_bad_as_parents_think.html.

Gammon, Kate. “Chew This: What Does Science Tell Us About Teething?” Popular Science, Popular Science, 13 Feb. 2014, www.popsci.com/blog-network/kinderlab/chew-what-does-science-tell-us-about-teething.

Hayes, Chad. “The Truth About Teething.” The Scientific Parent, The Scientific Parent, 8 Nov. 2016, https://thescientificparent.org/the-truth-about-teething/.

Doing better by black mothers and babies

Photo credit: LaToya Ruby Frazier for The New York Times

 

There’s been a ton of discussion in the birth world this month about Linda Villarosa’s excellent New York Times Magazine feature, and for good reason. It would be an understatement to say that this longform report is a compelling read. Framed by the heartbreaking personal story of one mother in New Orleans, Villarosa’s piece lays out the history of black maternal and infant mortality in the U.S. in fascinating, infuriating detail:

Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel.

Yeah. I’ll give you a minute to read that again.

Methodically, Villarosa dismantles the myths and assumptions that have obstructed progress for black mothers and babies in the United States. She shows us how the research community continues to dig deeper to unravel the knot of causation:

Though it seemed radical 25 years ago, few in the field now dispute that the black-white disparity in the deaths of babies is related not to the genetics of race but to the lived experience of race in this country. In 2007, David and Collins published an even more thorough examination of race and infant mortality in The American Journal of Public Health, again dispelling the notion of some sort of gene that would predispose black women to preterm birth or low birth weight. To make sure the message of the research was crystal clear, David, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois, Chicago, stated his hypothesis in media-friendly but blunt-force terms in interviews: “For black women,” he said, “something about growing up in America seems to be bad for your baby’s birth weight.”

With engaging prose, Villarosa surveys a broad range of past and current projects focused on making sense of the abysmal statistics. She shoots down the various shame/blame theories that have persisted over the years (no, the high rate of infant death for black women is not due to smoking, drinking, using drugs, being overweight, being too young, or being poor) and brings us up to speed on what the evidence says about the long term effects of systemic racism on black bodies:

The bone-deep accumulation of traumatizing life experiences and persistent insults that the [Black Women’s Health Study] pinpointed is not the sort of “lean in” stress relieved by meditation and “me time.” When a person is faced with a threat, the brain responds to the stress by releasing a flood of hormones, which allow the body to adapt and respond to the challenge. When stress is sustained, long-term exposure to stress hormones can lead to wear and tear on the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems, making the body vulnerable to illness and even early death.

If reading her story makes you weep with sorrow and rage, it’s supposed to. And yet, she also shows us glimmers of hope. Villarosa highlights the vital work of several groups working hands-on to create better birth outcomes for black families: SisterSong, the Birthmark Doula Collective, the By My Side Birth Support Program, and Sisters Keeper are among a nationwide network of organizations trying to bridge the gaps in healthcare.

Here in Portland, a city whose long-term sustainability centers on attracting and retaining non-white families from away, we have a few organizations working woman-to-woman to improve black maternal health; the Community Doula Birth Program supports births at low/no-cost and In Her Presence provides a variety of social support, to name two. But as Villarosa notes in her conclusion, very few doulas can earn a living solely from birth work, especially if they are trying to reach low-income populations, and doulas can’t change the game all on their own regardless. As a state and as a nation, we still have centuries of systemic oppression to overcome and repair.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating that maternal and infant health outcomes are better when mothers have good social support during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery. For families with resources, that kind of help can be bought (and even then, Villarosa emphasizes, income and education are no protection against low birth weight for black babies.)

For the rest, for the majority, we need fundamental, structural change — in workplaces, healthcare, state law, insurance coverage, and social attitudes toward birth. We need medical professionals to listen to, and believe, black women. Prioritizing the health of black mothers and babies is prioritizing the health of our communities. Making space for women of color to connect with each other and with resources is a good start. Creating systems that pay birth workers a livable wage is even better. Improving the way doctors and nurses interact with women of color is better still. So how do we get there?

Now that we know better, let’s do better, Maine.

Baby sleep advice

Co-sleeping? Self-soothing? Crying it out? Baby sleep is mysterious and overwhelming in the early days…and then again around four months…and again any time they have a cold or a developmental leap. When you Google “why won’t my baby sleep” at 4 am, you are quickly buried by the avalanche of opinions out there on the best way to influence your baby’s sleep patterns.

But don’t despair: There is hope! There is help! There are educators out there who can explain it clearly to tired parents.

The Baby Sleep Geek offers virtual consultations for tired parents to get a little empathy, a lot of useful tips, and customized sleep plans.

Dr. Karp is the baby sleep guru and creator of The Happiest Baby on the Block. if you are willing to wade through a lot of sales pitches for the Snoo, his specially designed baby bed, his blog has helpful advice about soothing your baby to sleep.

Gwen Dewar, PhD’s writing style strikes a balance between academic and reassuring. Her Newborn Sleep Patterns: A Survival Guide for the Science-Minded Parent explains many of the reasons why we struggle to get enough rest for ourselves and our babies. This resource might be a bit too detailed if you are looking for quick solutions in the middle of the night, but if you are a person who likes to understand how things work, take a peek during the daylight hours.

For desperate parents in southern/midcoast Maine, BirthMe offers overnight infant care in your home that includes gentle guidance for your baby to develop healthy sleep patterns.

This stage doesn’t last forever, but when you’re seriously sleep deprived, everything feels like a permanent catastrophe. If you are having scary thoughts or panicky feelings, call the PSI warmline at 800-944-4773. You are not alone. You are not to blame. And with help, you will be well.

Baby swimming lessons

Our very first Baby Lunch Date was a hoot! Thank you to the parents who joined us for cookies and catching up. To all who couldn’t make it this week, I’ll be back at Rosemont Wellness next Monday at 11 am to do it again.

Part of our wide-ranging conversation today was the topic of baby swimming lessons in southern Maine. I promised that I would do a little librarian-ing and put together a list of places nearby that offer water play for the littles. And so, here we are. Did I lose hours of my life looking at stock photos of babies in swimming pools? Possibly. Was it worth it to find snaps of baby Ed Sheeran’s first time in a swimming pool?* Definitely.

Surprised baby looking at swimming pool.

 

In no particular order:

I will keep adding to this list as I hear about additional options. If you have a recommendation, please email me!

 

*You might be surprised to learn that that’s not actually Ed Sheeran.

What does Ballast & Buoy mean?

No, I did not use the Hipster Business Name Generator to name my LLC. I was using an ampersand before it was cool. The moniker was birthed after months of planning and wondering about the future. I wanted a name that would really convey how my services would provide comfort and care for exhausted new parents, and the writer in me was holding out for a real spark.

During an evening of drinking deep intellectual conversation with some of my wordsmith-iest friends, we hit upon the idea of ballast, the stabilizing weight in a ship’s hull. I immediately loved the imagery of a family as an oceangoing vessel, and it felt right for our seaside city. Ballast on its own, though, wasn’t quite enough. My postpartum family care would do more than simply keep the ship from capsizing. It would help parents navigate the newborn months and move forward. We wracked our brains for the perfect complement, and parted ways with the thought still incomplete.

Luckily for me, one of those friends found inspiration driving home over the bridge to South Portland that night, and left me a voicemail saying, “I’ve got it! Ballast and BUOY!” She’d nailed it.

Ballast & Buoy helps parents stabilize and stay afloat.  As your postpartum navigator, I show you the ropes, rig the sails, and stock the hold with provisions while you explore uncharted territory. When the occasion calls for it, I might even swab the poop deck.

I’m not an old salt (…yet), but Casco Bay is my happy place, and I am learning to sail one teetering afternoon at a time. In the meantime, I’m here to help your family get your sea legs.