Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Truth About Teething Part II: Remedies and Realities

In part I of this series, we talked about how parents may "diagnose" infant teething as the cause of symptoms like fever, runny nose, diarrhea, skin rashes, irritability, and sleeplessness. Results from research studies have challenged parents' beliefs about teething, indicating that no symptoms are linked consistently with tooth eruption in all children. In this post, we'll look at some of the ways parents may "treat" their teething infants and how the research might help you to decide which of these methods, if any, to use with your own infant.

The Many Remedies for Teething

Parents don't have to go far for advice on treatments for infant teething. Family, friends, even strangers in the grocery store will readily share their expertise. Of course, all parents will try to comfort their teething babies, but sometimes their efforts to hold or rock their babies don't seem to be enough and they want to try something else. Before you read the rest of this post, we want you to know 2 things. First and foremost, we are not medical doctors. You should talk to your health care provider about ANY medication that you wish to give your baby. Second, we are NOT recommending any of these remedies. We are only reporting what we've found in studies on teething. That said, let's take a look at the pros and cons related to the top 3 most common "treatments" for infant teething.

1. Teething Toys and Objects

Pros: Nearly all parents think that their babies drool and want to bite on things while teething. A well known remedy for infant teething discomfort is to offer the baby something hard (and often cold) to chew on. Babies' gums tend to swell and become sensitive as teeth emerge and it makes sense that babies should respond well to biting down on something firm and cold. Many do. Dozens of teething toys can be found in any store that sells baby goods. Health care providers sometimes recommend cold hard vegetables or clean cloths that have been put into cold water. Many babies prefer to bite daddy's or mommy's fingers. Beware! You don't want to learn (the hard way) how effectively babies can bite down with those new teeth.

Cons: Parents need to be careful to avoid choking hazards or toys that can come apart. These toys also typically don't work if the baby is already very fussy or has awakened in the night.

2. Pain Medications

Pros: The most common medication given to babies to reduce pain and fever is acetaminophen (also called paracetamol) sold in preparations especially for infants and children. The effect may last for several hours. More than half of the parents in the studies we reviewed reported using acetaminophen occasionally to help their babies deal with the pain associated with teething.

Cons: Some parents reported that their babies' "teething symptoms" lasted for up to 4 weeks before teeth emerged. While considered by most pediatricians to be a safe medication for babies, acetaminophen is not meant to be taken for a prolonged period of time. If you think your baby needs any medication more frequently or for a longer period of time than is recommended, talk to your health care provider before you do anything that is not on the instructions provided with the medication. Also, clinicians worry that parents might delay taking babies with health concerns (like ear or respiratory infections) to the doctor if the symptoms seem to improve with the use of over-the-counter medications.

3. Mouth Gels

Pros: Just like acetaminophen, many topical gel medications, made to be put directly on babies' gums, have been around a long time and are considered to be safe by most pediatricians. They usually contain some kind of pain reliever (like lidocaine) and are formulated to stay on the babies' gums at least long enough for the pain reliever to take effect.

Cons: The medications in these gels only work for a short time and are washed off by the baby's saliva fairly quickly. Also, if teething is not the reason for a baby's fussiness, the gels won't work at all. There is also the possibility that tired parents might make a mistake and use the wrong gel in the baby's mouth. Obviously, you need to be careful when using any medication, for yourself or your baby.

Older (and not so good) Remedies

When I was a baby (long, long, ago), some parents used brandy or a sweet alcohol preparation to sedate babies who were teething. Grandparents or great- grandparents may be suggesting that you try alcohol. Resist the temptation to use anything to sedate your baby.

Bottles propped in babies' beds have also been used to keep fussy babies from bothering sleeping parents during the night. Leaving bottles of milk, juice, or formula in babies' cribs has been linked to cavities and damage to babies' teeth.

The Realities

Researchers believe that there are no diagnostic symptoms of teething that will show up in all babies and that most teething symptoms are short-term and fairly mild. Why then, are we so full of ideas about teething babies? The experts would say that parents who describe the "symptoms" of teething are actually describing the "symptoms" of being a baby.

Now, we don't mean to say that teething is easy or fun. Teething is tough, on babies and on parents and each baby will experience teething in a different way. When selecting a "treatment" for teething, parents should first rule out other causes for their babies' behavior. For example, a baby with a fever and a runny nose probably has a cold and parents need to watch for signs of a more serious infection. A baby with runny stools might have eaten something off the floor. Pain medications may not be useful if a teething baby is fussy because he is frustrated while trying to learn a new skill rather than by pain in his mouth. Those of you who have been reading the blog know a great deal about your babies. Be sure to consider the big picture before deciding to take action to "treat" teething.

Next time: We'll answer more readers' questions.


  1. How come nothing natural medicine wise or homeopahic was mentioned?... There are even homeopahic teething gels which carry no risk of overdose and no side effects. And no risk if fussiness is t due to teething like with other drugs. Might be a good thing to cover in the future! :)

  2. you need to take extra care of the baby in order for him or her to overcome the pain that they go through during the process of Teething.

  3. Thank you Lauren. Yes, we should discuss alternative and homeopathic ways to deal with teething and other baby issues. Great idea!

    And yes Glenna Jean, extra TLC for teething babies is a must! We were sharing additional "treatments" that parents might try after they decide the extra care is not enough. Thanks for your comments!

  4. There's recently been a recall on children's and infant's tylenol (acetaminophen), motrin, zyrtec and benadryl. This is at least the 3rd recall within the last year! I well understand the temptation to give these things to a very unhappy baby, but I don't think it's worth the risk.