When a baby is extra fussy, up multiple times a night, and/or won’t nap well, many parents blame it on teething when there’s no other apparent problem. How long does teething really last and how does it affect a child’s sleep? To answer these questions, we need to first talk about a few general teething facts.
Signs of Teething Can Be Misleading
If you ask a parent to list the most common signs of teething, most would probably say: chewing, drooling, fussiness, and problems sleeping. However, most of these are not always a sign of teething. Fussiness can be due to gas/reflux, overtiredness, separation anxiety…and the list goes on. Babies are fussy creatures. Whining and crying are their only ways of communication before they learn how to express their feelings.
Many people believe that chewing on fingers and objects is a sign of teething. The reality, though, is that babies also chew on things to explore the world around them. This starts as soon as they realize they have hands. It’s so cute to watch a baby discover this. He’ll hold a hand up in front of his face, turn it around every way, bend his fingers, and just watch it all happen, like it’s a spectacular event.
Babies explore with the five senses: seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting. Once a baby has viewed his hands, then he might try batting them against something to hear the sound it makes. He may touch one with the other to see how it feels. Then … you guessed it … he puts them in his mouth to see how they taste. Once a baby is able to grasp objects, the same applies. He will look at them, feel them, listen to any sounds they make, smell them, and taste them. Chewing is one of the biggest ways a baby explores and learns about the world around him.
The things listed above are all signs of teething, when happening excessively. Chewing itself isn’t a sign of teething, but chewing more than normal could be. Drooling isn’t always a sign of teething, but if a baby is excessively drooling, it might mean a tooth is coming soon. Prolonged sleep issues are not a sign of teething. However, if a baby has been sleeping well and then starts experiencing sleep issues, this could be a sign of teething. Other proven signs of teething are:
- Fed, swollen gums
- Redness on the cheeks or chin
- Rejecting food
- Face rubbing or ear pulling, and
- Uncommon disturbed sleep.
The first tooth usually erupts around six months of age, with the last molars coming in around two years. These are, of course, just averages. Some babies get teeth as early as four months and some don’t have any until close to their first birthday.
Experts say that a baby experiences discomfort for a couple of days before and a couple of days after the tooth erupts through the gums. We are quick to blame teething for prolonged fussiness and sleep problems. Some parents assume their baby has been teething for months. However, if the problem has been happening for longer than a few days, with no teeth in sight, then teething isn’t to blame.
Fun fact: The term “cutting a tooth” isn’t accurate. The gums actually separate and make a way for the tooth to pass through when ready. This explains why there is no bleeding when a tooth comes in. It also explains why experts describe the feeling as more of a discomfort than a pain.
Teething and Sleep
Teething can certainly cause sleep issues for a few days and nights. When a baby is awake, teething discomfort can sometimes be soothed with toys, pacifiers, a change of scenery, or lots of snuggles. However, when laid down to sleep, there are less things distracting him from the discomfort. This is why some babies experience trouble sleeping while teething. Try these proven ways to help ease your baby’s discomfort while teething:
- Massage the gums with a clean finger before putting the baby to bed. You can also rub them with a teething gel. Some brands even offer a nighttime gel to aid with sleep.
- Offer a pacifier if baby is soothed by one.
- Give a pain-relieving medication about 20 minutes before bedtime. There are so many products on the market now, from baby Tylenol or Motrin to a whole gamut of homeopathic and natural options as well. (Always check the correct dosing, and talk to your pediatrician if you have any questions about administering these.)
- Add extra snuggles into your bedtime routine and offer comfort as needed.
Remember, discomfort from teething should only last a few days per tooth. Offer your baby some extra comfort during this time. If your child has been sleep-trained, you can always revisit your training, if needed, a few days after the tooth has come through. This will help get your child back on track if he regressed at all while teething.
If you aren’t sure where to start, here is a list of some of my favorite teething products. (These are not affiliate links — just sharing what’s worked for us! Please seek medical advice from a professional before using any over-the-counter medications or gels.)
- Baby Oragel – This is teething massage gel. They have a day-time and night-time gel for help all day long! I usually keep the day-time one in the diaper bag and the night-time one on the changing table.
- Mommy’s Bliss Organic Massage Gel – This is an organic option for teething gel. I’ve used both and think the Oragel might work a tiny bit better, but…just a tiny bit.
- Hyland’s Baby teething tablets – These are homeopathic teething relief tabs. You can either let them dissolve on the baby’s tongue or dissolve them into water or a bottle. They offer both a day and nighttime version. I love having a homeopathic option for those times when I think the baby could be teething, but I’m not sure. I don’t love to jump straight to Tylenol or Motrin unless I’m sure it’s needed. However, I feel comfortable using something like this for those “just in case” moments.
- Camilia teething liquid – This is another great homeopathic option that can be given to babies as little as one-month-old. It comes in single-serve pods that you just open and squeeze into baby’s mouth.
- Infants’ Motrin – If you’re sure teething is the cause of sleeping issues, a dose of this before bedtime can really help. The dosing starts at 6 months. If you need it before then, talk to your pediatrician. Some will allow a smaller dose for babies younger than this.
There’s no doubt that teething can cause disruptions in a baby’s normal routines, schedule, and sleep. However, the problem shouldn’t persist for more than a few days. There are many ways to help your baby sleep well during this time. If your sleep troubles are persisting longer than that, there is likely another cause.
Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant
Owner, Little Bell Sleep Solutions
Ashley lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and two children. As a former elementary teacher, writing plans and educating others is in her nature. Ashley believes that every child is different. There isn’t just one method of sleep training that’s going to work for every single child. Ashley first gets to know a child, the family, and all of the factors that could affect their sleep through a comprehensive assessment form. Then, she creates customized sleep plans for a child’s specific needs and offers one-on-one support during training.
She works with newborns through pre-school age children and has experience solving a large variety of common sleep issues. Learn more at www.littlebellsleepsolutions.com