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:
- 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.
- The drool is real. This is when all those bibs you got as baby gifts will finally justify the storage space they take up.
- 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.
- 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…
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/.