Teething: The angst and the agony

By Brittany Carlson

Teething must be one of the most painful and drawn-out ailments of babyhood, for parents as well as babies. It seems to be the culprit behind so many baby troubles. Fussiness? Sleep issues? Drooling all the time? Must be a tooth coming in.

Unfortunately, teeth seem to take forever to break through, meaning months upon months of wondering whether baby is in pain from teething or having other issues. On top of that, many parents (especially moms, myself included) tend to agonize over how to best manage the pain.

According to the What to Expect website, most babies start getting their first tooth around six months old (but teething can start at three months or after age 1). Symptoms, on the other hand, can occur two to three months beforehand, leaving parents to wonder what’s causing their baby’s sudden crankiness or sleeplessness, among other symptoms.

 The most common teething symptoms include drooling, teething rash and coughing (due to excess drool), biting, crying, irritability, night waking and ear pulling, gum rubbing, sucking, decreased appetite and mild temperature, according to a parents.com article by Marisa Cohen.

For me (and certainly many other moms), the night waking is the worst of the symptoms, especially since I’ve finally gotten my seven-month-old, James*, to sleep through the night.

Until recently, a runny nose, fever and diarrhea were also among the list of teething symptoms, but according to a recent BabyCenter article, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that “a true fever (rectal temperature of 100.4 degrees F or higher) and diarrhea aren’t normal symptoms.” The article advises parents to visit their babies’ pediatricians’ office when these symptoms are present to rule out more serious illnesses such as infections or allergies.

Even if you’re sure your baby is struggling with teething, it’s tough to know how best to alleviate their suffering.

To help manage teething pain, Babycenter.com advises giving babies a teething ring or cold washcloth, applying pressure to baby’s gums with a finger, or allowing baby to eat cold foods (like applesauce) before offering pain medicine. The article also warns that some pain relievers are dangerous for babies and should be avoided, including aspirin, homeopathic teething tablets and gels and any medicines containing benzocaine.

When my older son, Adam*, now 3, started getting teeth, I remember being so reluctant to give him too much pain medicine, especially after reading articles like this one. I tried a teething necklace and essential oils. I gave him ice chips wrapped in a cute little strawberry-shaped washcloth. Finally, I started to give him infant Motrin, the only thing that helped him (and I) get through the night.

Now, my second son, James,* (seven months) is getting teeth, but instead of getting one at a time as Adam did, he is currently sprouting five teeth at once! His poor little gums are swollen with buds, and while he is normally a calm and happy baby, lately he’s been extremely fussy, refusing to let me put him down and requiring a pacifier throughout the day.

This time, however, I’m skipping the guilty feelings and going right for the ibuprofen when I think he needs it.

In Cohen’s article on parents.com, American Academy of Pediatrics dentist, Michael Hanna, tells parents to try alleviating pain with pressure, chilled teething rings and even frozen banana slices wrapped in a washcloth. But in the end, Hanna tells parents to not “be afraid” of giving cranky babies pain medicine, especially at night (parents.com).

So, when James is fussing because of his teeth, and after I’ve given him teething rings and ice chips, I give him infant Motrin, and it helps us both to get through the night.  

My point isn’t to recommend one method of pain relief over another, but rather to say this: Parents, trust your instincts. At the end of the day, after you’ve done your research and called your doctor and talked to friends and family, you know your baby best. Don’t be afraid to give your baby what he or she needs to find comfort, whatever that looks like, and don’t feel bad if it looks different than what someone else is doing.


Try not to sweat the small stuff. Teething is painful enough on its own.


*names changed for privacy


Brittany Carlson is a lifelong lover of words and all things chocolate. She is an Army wife and now has two sons, Adam (3) and James (7 months). She has written for several Army community newspapers, including the Stuttgart Citizen (Germany), Fort Leonard Wood Guidon (Missouri) and Fort Belvoir Eagle (Virginia). Brittany holds a Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She and her family live in upstate NY.