Waking up in the morning to find the crib railing peppered with tiny tooth marks can be disconcerting, but it’s not necessarily cause for concern. Babies’ mouths are like deep space probes, analyzing everything they come across. It’s called the rooting reflex; anything that brushes against their cheek or lower lip gets a gum job. It’s a natural instinct that doesn’t really cause harm – in fact, it’s quite soothing – although popping everything in their mouth certainly poses risks for the baby.
Melanie Potock is a pediatric speech pathologist, feeding specialist, and author who understands how and why babies investigate the world with their mouths – and how that exploration transforms into chewing through their bed rail like a cartoon woodchuck.
“Between the ages of 5 and 10 months, a baby’s front teeth are emerging on the bottom and top gums, and a baby is drawn to gnawing on almost anything,” explains Potock. “By a year of age, because of gnawing on food and other objects, kids can move their jaws in a diagonal motion when chewing food and wide up and down motions on hard surfaces, like the crib railing.”
When those teeth start to appear, babies start doing damage to the things around them – toys, siblings, and furniture. So once they gnaw the heck out of the crib railing, they’ve discovered all there is to know about it, and they can turn their attention to chewing on other mysteries of the universe, right? Well, not exactly.
It’s not merely about discovery. It’s about pain relief. As any parent who has seen those swollen, sore-looking gums can attest – and dealt with a cranky baby – the teething process HURTS. It’s not just the first round of teething, either – those toddler molars are hard to reach and can cause a lot of discomfort and frustration, and the process can go on for months.
“Molars begin to erupt between 9 and 15 months, and then come the cuspids peeking out by 18 months of age,” explains Potock. “Those teeth continue to emerge over time and second molars erupt approximately around two years of age.”
So that biting helps soothe them, as well as helps those teeth cut through. But parents don’t have to resign themselves to two years of catching splinters and worrying about the ingredients in crib paint (although please check the annual recall report for peace of mind.) Parents can discourage inappropriate gnawing by protecting the crib itself as well as supplying the baby with the teethers they need to help relieve that discomfort and keep their minds stimulated and exploring.
Extra-large baby-safe silicon guards not only protect furniture, they make it hard for most babies to get a good biting angle. They also have the added benefit of protecting crawling babies as they start to explore the limits of their mobility. Of course, the house should be baby-proofed thoroughly, too.
Make sure the kid has a wide variety of teethers. A variety of shapes and textures is better – differently-shaped teethers let babies engage different parts of the jaw, and different textures are just more interesting. For safety, it’s a good idea to have nothing in the crib while the baby sleeps. Teethers or pacifiers tethered to the child are definitely not good ideas when the child is left unattended. A tether can wind around their fingers, wrist, or neck, causing all sorts of dangerous situations. Parents can also massage their kid’s gums directly, with a finger cot or damp toothbrush.
One thing parents can’t do, though, is dissuade a baby from exploring with their mouth. They explore, they sense, they soothe, and they discover – and possibly strengthen their immune system unwittingly – with their mouth. It’s not just a comfort instinct for babies – it’s a trend that sticks with a lot of people well past infancy.
“When babies and toddlers need to regulate their sensory system, calm down and pay attention, they use their mouths,” explains Potock. “That’s why babies suck for comfort, older kids chew on their sleeves in kindergarten, and adults gnaw on their pencils when taking a test.”
But it’s nothing to worry about. Of course, parents should speak to their pediatrician if they have specific concerns. But eventually those teeth will erupt, the baby will grow and develop enough to more easily recognize appropriate things to bite, and everybody can focus on getting the hottest platinum grill a three-year-old could want.
How to Stop a Kid from Chewing on the Crib
- Use oversized silicon guards. This doesn’t just protect the furniture; it’s difficult for babies to get their chompers around them.
- Give the kid something more appropriate to bite. Safe teethers (no small parts to come lose) in a variety of shapes and textures give the child a lot of options to explore and soothe.
- Massage their gums directly – this doesn’t just let a parent see which parts of their child’s jaw hurts. It helps soothe and relieve discomfort from teething.