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/.

Oh, Baby: The Witching Hour

The first few weeks after birth are a blur, but eventually, home life starts to settle into something resembling a rhythm. Right about the time that you start to think that you might have the hang of this baby gig (usually around 5-8 weeks), many babies begin to demonstrate a behavior known as sundowning. Late in the afternoon, the inconsolable crying begins, and it doesn’t stop until everyone in the house longs for a sensory deprivation chamber. Some parents call it the witching hour, which is a euphemism for “centuries.”

Evolutionary biology suggests that babies just need to cry as part of the normal arc of development  (and possibly to discourage their parents from ever having sex again). Regardless, it’s also true that some babies really are easier than others. If you did not win the Easy Baby Lottery, please take heart in the pithy sentiment that nothing lasts forever. If that is insufficient comfort, here are a few survival strategies to get you through this phase.

Sundowning survival strategies

Be kind to yourself

  • Set low expectations. Don’t plan to get anything else done during this time. Heed the wisdom of Anna and Elsa. Let it go.
  • Take a break. Switch off with your partner and get out of the range of your baby’s cries, even just for a walk around the block. If you’re tempted to keep on walking straight out of town, this is normal, albeit impractical. Call me.
  • Ask for help. In days of yore, our whole village supported us through the childbearing year. Now we are largely on our own after baby’s first photo hits Instagram. Recognizing when you need to lean on someone is a virtue and a strength. Ask your cousin or coworker to stop by for an hour to help bounce the baby. Schedule one of my witching hour house calls. Signal your neighbors and hoist a flag on your mailbox that says “NEW BABY. PLEASE SEND FOOD.”

 

Plan ahead for the witching hour

When it becomes clear that you’ve entered the apocalypse period of purple crying, give in. The only way out is through. For your own sanity, structure your day around it.

parental standard time zone

  • Nap during the day whenever possible. This will basically be true for the rest of your life.
  • Avoid making plans that require you and the baby to be out of the house in the late afternoon or evening.
  • If you succeeded in stocking the freezer before baby arrived, pull out a few meals to defrost for the week. (If you didn’t, and wish you had, call me.)
  • Order dinner delivery from 2DineIn or your favorite pizza joint.
  • Hit up the prepared meals options in Portland: Whole Foods, Figgy’s, Home Catering Co., and many others offer hot meals to go.
  • Accept all offers of food from your friends, colleagues, and neighbors. People want to help you, and they’re not always sure what you need. Let them feed you. In the fourth trimester especially, food is love.

Soothe your crying baby

What works one evening might not work the next, but through trial and error you might hit upon your baby’s magic calm button.Whatever works for you is what works for you. In our family, that turned out to be the Moby, the stability ball, and an endless loop of Party Rock Anthem. One family I worked with found that their baby preferred Dad’s off-key but heartfelt interpretation of Wonderwall. Ballast & Buoy is a judgement-free zone, folks. Do what you must to survive.anyway here's wonderwall

  • Movement: Wear your baby securely while you walk or dance with them. Rock them in a glider or baby swing. Gently bounce on a stability ball.
  • Sound: Some babies respond well to sounds that remind them of the womb’s constant white noise. Try humming, singing, listening to music or turning up some external white noise. The librarian’s specialty, shushing, is especially recommended by Dr. Karp.
  • Touch: Nursing, massage, a warm bath or warm water on the feet.
  • Environment: Some babies like to be out in the fresh air while others prefer dark, cozy rooms. If one doesn’t do the trick, try the other. Sometimes a change of scenery breaks the spell.

For more research-based background and tips on infant crying, check out Seattle Mama Doc’s “Colic, Crying, and the Period of Purple Crying” and  Dr. Karp’s 5S technique.

If you’re really struggling with this era of infancy, you’re not alone, no matter what it feels like in hour 3. It’s not your imagination: this stage suuuuuuucks. But it truly can’t last forever, and you don’t have to endure it in isolation. Before you reach your breaking point, reach out.  Surround yourself with other parents of newborns. Schedule a witching hour house call. Text a friend who’s been through this too. They will tell you: you will get through this.

 

References

The Period of Purple Crying: Why Does My Baby Cry So Much? by Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, FRCP(C).

Cell Press. “From mice to humans, comfort is being carried by mom.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 April 2013.