The Teething Nightmare: Phase Or Fiction?

27/04/2016 12:47 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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You don't have to be a parent to have heard of the 'teething nightmare'. Typically starting when a child is around six months of age, the process of teeth emerging through an infant's gums has long been thought to be a painful process, often resulting in grizzly babies (and sleepless nights).

However, some experts say teething isn't as bad as it's made out to be.

In fact, according to Dr Justin Coulson, one of Australia’s leading parenting experts and the author of the number one parenting book 21 Days To A Happier Family, teething -- and the symptoms associated with it -- may be all a bunch of hype.

"This is quite a controversial opinion, and most people don't like it when I say this," Coulson told The Huffington Post Australia. "But there is increasing evidence in scholarly thought and medical journals that teething is not actually a thing.

"The reason it's controversial is because it defies the conventional wisdom of centuries. When children are irritable at 12 to 24 months of age, or at six weeks, or at six months, teething is certainly a very convenient thing to blame that irritability on.

"And of course, when you are in the position where you have an infant that is chewing its mothers nipple off, not sleeping, and dealing with swollen gums and flushed cheeks, it can be hard to believe that inflammation is not causing some level of irritability."

But some experts are calling bluff, especially when it comes to certain symptoms often associated with teething, such as fever.

As Dr Clay Jones, a pediatric and newborn hospitalist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts, wrote for popular blog Science-Based Medicine:

"Parents and other caregivers are quick to list fever, difficulty sleeping, fussiness, drooling, changes in feeding amount and frequency, nasal congestion, and diarrhea, in addition to the most frequently cited symptom of pain, but the evidence has not been very supportive of these beliefs. To put it bluntly, it does not appear that the eruption of a tooth can be successfully predicted by any collection of symptoms. I have spoken to many parents who believe that their child has been teething for weeks without a tooth revealing itself. It just doesn’t work that way."

As a father to six children, Coulson admits his personal experiences are somewhat at odds with the science.

"Some of my children have been entirely unaffected by teething," Coulson said. "And others have appeared to have really suffered through the teething process.

"I think, really, it's just part of growing up. But from my own experience, here’s what I noticed. Children who are more sensitive and who love a snuggle and a cuddle tend to take comfort from their parents really well during this time.

"Those who are the most responsive to hugs, warmth and patience from parents seem to be the least affected.

"In other words, parents who are highly responsive tend to have children who are a lot less irritable."

What both Coulson and Jones find worrying is the number of 'teething treatments' available, not all of which are necessarily considered safe. For example, amber necklaces and bracelets. Writes Jones:

"Another popular but ineffective remedy for teething symptoms is amber, typically incorporated into a necklace or bracelet. The claims regarding just how wearing amber might treat teething symptoms range from complete woo, such as it being charged with reiki energy, to somewhat more reasonable claims of analgesic chemicals being absorbed by the skin. These claims are implausible and thoroughly unproven, and amber jewelry represents a worrisome choking risk in young children."

"I do get concerned about some of the things we give to kids to put in their mouths," Coulson told HuffPost Australia. "There is some really shonky stuff out there.

"That amber necklace thing, for instance, and some of the medications that we are putting into our children’s mouths with no evidence to back them up... I think we need to be much more vigilant around those sorts of things.

"I would even go so far as to say there's as much mythology around teething as there is around the anti-vaccination debate. There are all these conspiracy theories and not a lot of evidence. In fact, the evidence that is out there tends to steer in the other direction."

For those convinced their child is having a rough time and it is due to teething, Coulson says the best kind of comfort comes from the parent rather than anything you can buy off the chemist shelf.

"We need to get past the mindset that teething is some sort of nightmare," Coulson said. "Though, if you are concerned, the idea of giving your child teething rings or crackers or ice cubes doesn't bother me. Whether or not they are actually reducing any pain is beside the point. What they are doing is providing a welcome distraction.

"But really, the best advice I have for parents is to be extra compassionate, extra available and to help the child feel extra secure. If your child is in pain due to teething, there's not really that much you can do except hug them anyway."



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