Teething is both a milestone and a mystery. For years people have raised their children with most of the information about teething coming from family, friends, and folklore. While there is plenty of advice to go around, how much of it is accurate? As it turns out, not much! I know, I know. Enough with the conspiracy theories, am I right? But this is a truly interesting tale of fable becoming accepted as truth.
What is Teething, Actually?
Well, people get this part mostly right. Teething is the sequential eruption of the baby teeth into the mouth. Not much controversy, here. The teeth are present in the jaws at birth, although not fully formed. Sometime between 3 and 12 months, most commonly around 6 months, the teeth begin to come into the mouth. They are sometimes preceded by a bump, or a bluish bulging eruption cyst (harmless). They can, in rare instances, cause a little bleeding in gums which lead to a darker purple or blue appearance.
The actual emergence of the tooth takes about 8 days, with the tooth appearing to poke through around the fifth day. The teeth arrive in pairs and the whole process takes roughly 2 years for all 20 teeth to make their debut and get settled.
Do you know what teething isn’t? It isn’t a tooth “cutting” it’s way through bone and tissue into the mouth in a brutal rite of passage. The teeth emerge through the bone and gum through a process where the bone is “dissolved” ahead of them. The exact mechanism isn’t exactly known. But here is where what we know diverges greatly from what we believe.
History of Teething
I’m sure you’ve heard the signs of teething ranging from drooling, loss of appetite, and fussiness to fever, rash, and malaise. Teething has been blamed for every symptom under the sun, and the thing is–there is no good reason to believe any of it.
Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. Back in the way back when, Hippocrates himself (you know the guy, father of modern medicine–has an oath named after him) noted that teething infants suffered from an array of ailments including such things as itching of the gums, convulsions, diarrhea (especially when cutting their eye teeth), and fever. Well, Hippocrates died in 370 BC. That’s right BC, but do you know what didn’t die? His pronouncements about teething.
Why Does Teething Have Such a Bad Rep?
When you look back at Hippocrates and all those who followed for many, many years, you can kind of understand why teething was linked to such horrible things, including paralysis and death, by the way. That’s right. Death. But think about this, until very recently, babies died a lot. Teething takes about 2.5 years which averages about a tooth a month during the most vulnerable time in a child’s life. So, babies were contracting illnesses and dying and what did they have in common? Well, it always seemed to happen around the time a tooth was erupting.
Just take a look at this adorable quote. “So deadly has (teething) become, that one-third of the Human Family die before the twenty deciduous teeth have fully appeared.” -Dr. M. Thrasher, Dental Cosmos, 1894. Dental Cosmos was a dental journal, back in the yore. Terrifying, right?
So what happened? Leeches happened. Extractions and gum splitting happened. Heavy metal salt applications happened. All manner of horrors in the name of preventing the deadly (and oddly completely natural) effects of tooth eruption happened, and to horrific ends. The gums of teething children were split to ease the discomfort and infections occurred, and that’s just one of the effects of the teething hysteria. Oh, those anti-teethers. Gotta love ‘em.
Can Teething Cause Systemic Symptoms?
The truth is that very little evidence exists for most of the claims made about teething symptoms. You can do an internet search and find claims that symptoms may last for weeks or even months. But remember, the eruption of a tooth takes about 8 days. The most likely symptom a baby will suffer is localized tenderness or discomfort. But what about the diarrhea? The fevers? The rashes? These other symptoms are most likely exactly that–symptoms. Just not of teething. It’s the same phenomenon as when deaths were blamed on teething–the proximity of one event to another becomes synonymous with causing it.
Recently, the Herpes virus has been identified as a possible culprit in the misassignment of symptoms to teething. Let’s look at its symptoms and features:
- Affects primarily teething aged children
- Affects most children
- Accompanied by fever, rash
- Severe oral pain
- Difficulty feeding
Now let’s compare those symptoms to commonly reported symptoms of teething.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased drooling
- Gnawing/sucking on fists or other objects
- Face rubbing/Ear pulling
- General grumpiness
- Loss of appetite/Difficulty feeding
Almost all of these can be attributed to Herpes or to other conditions (ear pulling). Interesting, huh? The fact is, teething isn’t a disease–it’s a process. Once we change our view of it and look with an objective eye, teething will outgrow its gruesome past.
So, What Do You Do About Teething?
For the mild discomfort that is suspected with teething, what is the best course of action?
- Teething rings
- Cool cloths
- Rubbing gum with clean finger
What Not to Do
Do NOT administer pain medications without a doctor’s advice.
Do NOT put topical analgesics like Orajel, benzocaine, etc.
Do NOT use homeopathic teething tablets whose ingredients are unregulated. Inconsistent amounts of potentially lethal belladonna have been found.
Don’t forget, have your child’s first dental visit by their first birthday! You can discuss any questions or concerns about your child’s dental development with your dental team!