the tooth hurts

But experts and parents disagree about other teething symptoms.

Teething is one of babyhood’s great puzzlements. When a happy infant morphs into a cranky fidget, or a cool little forehead suddenly goes hot, parents aren’t sure if they’re faced with an ill baby or one who’s sprouting a pearly white incisor. Some even blame teething for the minor illnesses and behavioral changes that commonly start at about 6 months — about the time the first baby tooth makes its debut.

Pediatric researchers, though, insist that teething produces nothing but teeth. A small study published recently in the journal Pediatrics supports this contention, finding no association between emerging baby teeth and “symptoms” ranging from crying to poor sleep.

Expert opinions notwithstanding, parents remain staunchly unconvinced. “I’m fooled every time,” says Tracy Foster of Boise, Idaho, mother of Brooke, 25 months, and Lauren, 6 months. “First I think, ‘Oh no! She’s sick!’ and then I check her gums and see that she’s teething.”

Almost universally, mothers and fathers find that new baby teeth are accompanied by at least one symptom ranging from a mild rise in temperature to irritability, wakefulness, facial rashes, drooling, ear rubbing and a loss of appetite for solids.

Teeth happen

No one denies that teething hurts. While that serrated little incisor, canine or molar is working its way through the sore gum, babies are bound to fret — and parents are bound to share their pain. But some comfort can be derived from understanding the process. Babies have 20 primary teeth buried in their gums. The lower front teeth (central incisors) usually erupt at about 6 months of age, followed by the upper front teeth. Next are the upper and lower teeth at either side of the central incisors, followed by the upper and lower molars. The canines are next, with the last set of molars usually erupting by age 2.

The usual symptoms

“Many babies go through teething with no problems,” says Pamela DenBesten, D.D.S., chairwoman of the Division of Pediatric Dentistry at the University of California, San Francisco. When babies do have symptoms, she says, increased drooling is among the most common, along with rashes around the mouth. Others include irritability and sleep disturbances. Some parents say that teething causes loose stools or diaper rash, though studies have found no such correlation.

Whatever the case may be, any physical symptoms that a parent would consider serious when a child isn’t teething should be considered just as serious when a child is teething — and a doctor should be called.

What exactly happens during teething may be open to debate, but one thing is certain: Parents should never trivialize a baby’s distress. And they might consider viewing the glass as half-full. “Teething can be hard,” says Foster, “but it’s also exciting. It means my baby is growing up.”