Around six months of age, a baby’s mouth is working overtime. They’ve started using it to say “Dada”. They’ve developed a knack for chomping on board books. And just under their gums, a row of teeth is about to burst into the spit-drenched sunshine. As significant as this developmental milestone is, the emergence of the pearlies is dreaded by parents because teething is popularly believed to cause fevers, diarrhea, and tooth marks on the furniture.
“The science that we have surrounding tooth eruption remains not clearly understood,” says Dr. David Tesini, a pediatric dentist and consultant to patented soothing products brand, Smilo. “It can become downright confusing to the parent.” But it turns out, with an extra bit of scrutiny, many of the common beliefs about teething lose their bite. These are the persistent myths about teething.
Babies Don’t Need a Dentist
Many parents, who may not be fans of dentists themselves, are probably a bit reticent to get their toothless baby to the dentist. That does make a certain amount of sense. But it’s important to remember that gums are a huge part of the dental equation and a baby has gums in spades. Also, it’s not that the teeth don’t exist, they just can’t be seen. Unless you’re a dentist and know what you’re looking at.
“Parents should establish a dental home by the eruption of the first tooth. Or at least by the first birthday,” Tesini says. “It is important because as parents have questions about how teeth are coming in, they will have a resource in a pediatric dentist.”
Teething Can Cause Diarrhea, Rashes, and Fevers
Growing teeth is clearly hard and painful work, and luckily most people don’t remember going through that particular trauma. But without a recent perspective, it’s easy for parents to see every childhood discomfort as a symptom of teething. Teething has long been said to lead to mild “local” symptoms like drooling and irritability, as well as what is known as “systemic” symptoms like high fevers, diarrhea, and rashes. But studies have revealed the latter is likely unrelated.
“The most recent studies have shown only a weak relationship with the historical symptoms that parents have associated with teething,” Tesini explains. “The studies bear out that the local symptoms are probably real, but the systemic systems are not real.”
So what causes the systemic symptoms? Likely bacterial and viral infections that are common to babies around the time they start teething. Not the act of teething itself.
Timing of the First Tooth Can Signify Advanced or Delayed Cognitive Development
Parents have long had a complicated relationship with their understanding of developmental milestones, or rather, their misunderstanding of them. The fact is that milestone, denoting a fixed point on a path, are a misnomer and children develop at wildly different rates. That makes attributing any cognitive advancement to a milestone like a first tooth a troublesome enterprise.
These misconceptions can lead to undue parental stress. After all, if the early tooth supposedly signifies advanced cognition then it would follow the late tooth signifies delayed cognition. “It’s not true. It has no scientific basis to it,” says Tesini. That said, there is a reason a tooth might come earlier or later. “One of the things that I have found is that infant girls do have a tendency to erupt infant teeth sooner than the boys.”
Gums Need to be Cut to Let Baby Teeth Out
The parent of a child who is late to have that first pearly pushed through may start getting a bit panicky. That’s particularly true if their baby seems uncomfortable. This could lead them to look for solutions that have largely been relegated to medicines dusty history books, like cutting the gums to allow a tooth to escape.
“Only in very rare and unusual situations do gums need to be ‘cut’ to allow for the eruption of the baby teeth,” says Tesini. “That’s a misconception that should be clarified.”
Babies Need Teethers
There appears to be no end to the variety of baby teethers on the market. There are frozen teethers, soft teethers, squeaky teethers, hard teethers, and teethers shaped like a coy French giraffe. But do babies actually need them? Do they help?
Yes and no, according to Tesini. “If you look at teething babies biting on their fingers, observe what fingers they’re biting on and where they are biting,” he says. “It’s usually back where the molars are, not where the tooth is coming in.”
Why would that be? Because much of that chewing is due to a baby working on the muscles they will eventually need to destroy the delicious finger food you will eventually give them (rather than their actual fingers). They are in fact working on out their temporomandibular joint.
That said, Tesini is an advocate for teethers, but warns that any teether a parent purchases should be BPA free and solid enough that it does not break or crack. To that end, he warns against frozen fruit being used for teething, and suggest that something as simple as handing the kid a cold washcloth could do as much good as any teether on the market.
Teething Solutions are Best Found in the Pharmacy
It’s true that babies will have some discomfort as they are teething. And that’s hard for parents to deal with. But Tesini, along with most of the pediatric community warn against parents heading to the pharmacy to find solutions.
Popular topical oral pain relievers, for instance, may seem to offer a way to soothe the pain but are ineffective because the amount of saliva a baby produces. It’s usually washed away within seconds. Also, most pain relievers, even those designed for children, are not recommended for babies. So any trip to the pharmacy should be guided by a pediatrician rather than a parent’s desperate whim.
Caution should also be taken with natural homeopathic remedies. In 2017, levels of an herb called belladonna in one teething remedy were found to be very dangerous enough that the FDA warned parents it could cause seizures. The medicine is scheduled to be pulled from the shelves.