When it comes to teething, all babies are different: a very few are born with teeth already erupted through their gums, while others may reach their first birthday without any. In general, most babies will have that first little flash of white in their gums by six months old, and by two years old she may well have sixteen teeth. In the six months after that, the final four big back teeth often called “two year molars” will probably emerge.
Many parents find that teething symptoms are worst in the period before a tooth actually emerges, while it is working its way up through the baby’s gum. Some of the signs that parents report include:
- Changes in the way a baby latches on to the breast: feeding your baby may start to be uncomfortable, or she may change the position of her mouth or head, or her latch may just feel a bit different
- Dribbling: your baby is suddenly drooling all the time, and you may find yourself needing to change her bib or top several times a day
- Redness and rash: your baby’s cheeks may be flushed bright red, and she may have a red rash around her mouth and chin
- Loose stools: your baby’s poo may seem runnier than usual, it may seem to irritate her skin more than usual if she isn’t changed immediately, and she may develop nappy rash
- Biting and chewing: you might notice that your baby is chewing her fingers or fist; all young babies put objects into their mouths as a way of exploring them, but you may feel that your baby is chewing his toys with more determination than usual
- Night waking: any pain or discomfort can disrupt your baby’s usual sleep pattern
- Slightly raised temperature: some parents have said that their babies run a low-level fever at the point when a new tooth actually comes through the gum, warmer than usual but not hot enough to cause serious concern.
Warning! Some of the symptoms listed above can also be signs of illness. If your baby has diarrhoea or a fever, or you are worried about his health, please seek medical advice.
Specially designed teething toys can give your baby some relief from the discomfort in his gums. Look out for toys with plenty of surface texture, or little bumps or projections to chew on. Some teething rings are filled with water and can be kept in the fridge or freezer until they are needed. You don’t have to use specially designed toys, though: many babies enjoy chewing a flannel that has been run under a cold tap and then wrung out, especially if it has been kept in the fridge to cool down. You can also try massaging the sore spot on your baby’s gums with your finger, if he seems to enjoy it. A baby who is cutting teeth further back in the mouth might like to have a toothbrush or similarly-shaped toy to chew on; you can buy a “first toothbrush” without bristles if you are concerned about your baby chewing them off.
If your baby is eating solids, you can give him hard foods to chew on, like fingers of apple or carrot. Be aware that once your baby has actually cut a tooth, even the tip of it can be sharp enough to break a chunk off something like a raw carrot, so supervise him carefully and use your judgement about appropriate foods to offer. You could try freezing foods, such as fingers of banana, or freeze plain unsweetened yogurt into lollies (either use small lolly moulds, or place small spoonfuls onto a tray in the freezer with a lolly stick or baby’s spoon in each one).
Don’t forget that breastfeeding can be really soothing for a baby who is unhappy or in pain. Occasionally a well-meaning person might advise a breastfeeding mother that a baby should be weaned from the breast when his first tooth comes through, but this simply isn’t necessary. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for at least the first two years of a baby’s life; mothers around the world have happily breastfed their babies through teething, and even up to the age when the permanent teeth emerge.
Latch: Sore or swollen gums, or the presence of new teeth at the front of your baby’s mouth, may affect the way that she latches on to breastfeed. You may find it helpful to experiment with different feeding positions to find one that is comfortable for both of you. This is also a good time to keep an eye on your baby’s latch: make sure he is opening his mouth wide to latch on, ideally with his tongue visible above his lower teeth, and that he is latching deeply onto your breast . If sore gums are interfering with feeding, try some of the tips above for addressing the pain immediately before feeding. Be careful about using anything frozen, or any purchased teething remedy that numbs your baby’s mouth, immediately before feeding, as the numbness can affect his ability to latch correctly.
Biting: Sometimes a baby who has been dealing with teething pain by biting anything he can get hold of may experiment with doing the same thing to his mother’s breast. For some ideas on how to respond to biting, see this page. It is important to bear in mind that when a baby is correctly latched on to breastfeed, her tongue covers her lower teeth, so it should be impossible for her to bite you while actively feeding without biting her own tongue. A newly-emerged tooth is very sharp, in order to help it cut through the gum, so you may get a scratch from it during feeding. If your nipple is sore because of a bite or scratch, try using a different feeding position next time so that your baby’s teeth don’t touch the sore spot, and treat between feeds with pure lanolin or a hydrogel pad if necessary.
Frequency of feeding: You may already have discovered that breastfeeding can be a brilliant way of soothing your baby if she is unhappy, or in pain: after vaccinations or during illness, for example. If your baby is suffering with teething pain, she may ask to feed more often, possibly for quite short periods each time. If you are happy to feed her as often as she wants, then it can really help both of you to get through this tricky time. But if your baby’s teething is making it uncomfortable to feed her, you may not feel like offering the breast every time she asks for it. You can use the suggestions above to address problems with latching and biting, and you can experiment with other ways of distracting her from the pain. Mothers over the years have tried many things, and common tricks include carrying your baby, taking her for a walk outside, dancing with her, singing to her, giving her a warm bath, and anything else that you have found that works for her.
Dealing with dribble: It seems to be common for a teething baby’s dribble to irritate his skin. Make sure you keep him dry and clean, by gently washing or wiping his chin. You may want to do this immediately before offering him the breast, so that his dribble doesn’t irritate your skin too.
Written by Emma Taylor for LLLGB, 2017