Is teething just a myth?
A top children's dentist says that babies don't feel teething pain - it's all in the parents' heads. So why are we always reaching for the Calpol
Published 18/08/2015 | 02:30
Put away teething granules, bin the gels and release Sophie the Giraffe back to the wild - there's no need for any of them. After blaming emerging teeth for all those sleepless nights, the hot cheeks, the endless gnawing on cot bars, the fretting and nappy rashes, it seems that teething pain, much like the tooth fairy herself, is just a figment of the imagination.
According to Dr Kirsten Fitzgerald, consultant paediatric dental surgeon at Our Lady's Hospital in Dublin's Crumlin, our parental obsession with buying products to ease babies' teething pain is utterly pointless.
"I'm sure the teething product companies would have something else to say about it but in my view it is a big waste money," she said.
"Getting teeth is as natural as growing hair, skin or nails. If you know how the body works then the idea of 'teething pain' doesn't make sense. Why would the body have been designed or evolved to make a natural process painful? Natural selection has made us this way, we're made to have teeth, we're not made to be dependent on Calpol and amber teething necklaces."
According to Dr Fitzgerald, there are "a lot of myths about teething out there", with parents misreading the signs of a sick child as being something they can put down to teething. "They see a child who is unwell and they see a tooth and relate the two and say it's the tooth's fault."
Children will get around 20 viral infections in their early years as well as 20 teeth, she says, fuelling the misconception that the two are linked, when in fact it is purely co-incidental.
The age most babies get their first tooth happens at around the same time as they're losing their maternal antibodies, rendering them more susceptible to infection. From age six months (the time the first teeth often emerge), babies are also developing an interest in sensory exploration of the world around them, frequently using their mouth to investigate different textures and surfaces. While the first years in general are such a whirlwind of development, it's inevitable that sleep patterns will be erratic and tempers frayed.
Adding weight to her argument is the fact that most six and seven-year-olds never complain when their back molars arrive. As adults we tend to associate teething pain with our wisdom teeth. But that's generally down to the teeth being impacted from lack of room and infected because they're difficult to clean. In dishing out the pain relief to help babies with their milk teeth coming through, we could be guilty of projecting our own issues of tooth pain onto the baby rather than dealing with the reality.
But that doesn't mean there aren't issues with baby teeth that need addressing. According to Dr Fitzgerald, parents should be using water and a soft toothbrush to clean baby's teeth from the time the first tooth breaks through and then moving straight to adult toothpaste at age two (with a fluoride level of 1450ppm, many 'baby' toothpastes are too low) and booking a dental appointment by the first birthday.
"These are the things that need attention," she says.
"Not getting hooked on a cycle of pain relief for teething. Teething produces nothing but teeth and that's it."
It's not a viewpoint that has all the mums convinced.
Oh my God, no way!" says Kerrie McKimmie from Dunboyne, Co Meath, mum to Cameron (19 months). "My little boy ends up in agony when he's teething, he's definitely in pain. He tries to stuff his hands in his mouth and bite anything in his path - I have teeth marks on my door posts. There's no way he's not in pain."
Cameron has had ear infections and tonsillitis but the teething pain observed by his mum has been in between these infections and she's convinced over-the-counter remedies have helped.
"The Teetha granules help with mild pain if he's a bit irritated but the Neurofen works if he's screaming in pain."
"I agree that the signs can be mixed up with other problems, but my nine-year-old is getting her permanent incisors now and complaining about her gums hurting, so of course there's such a thing as teething pain," says mum Nicola O'Brien from Kildare.
Her 15-month-old son Daniel was recently seen by a specialist who linked the baby's frequent ear infections to teething.
"He said he was constantly pulling at his ears and sticking his fingers in his ears due to teething pain," says Nicola.
"My saviour has been the amber beads," adds mum to 14-month-old Evie, Niamh Hourigan from Galway. "When Evie's first teeth were cutting she was very irritable, cranky and off solids, the beads helped."
Consultant Paediatrician at Temple Street, Dr Sinead Murphy, agrees that parents can be in a rush to wrongly attribute symptoms to teething pain but she does believe that there's a place for some teething remedies.
"Teething is part of the normal process of development but I think there can be some discomfort and if homeopathic remedies or Calpol work, then that's ok."
The important thing she says is to know what's a normal symptom of teething - drooling, red cheeks, chewing - and what's not.
"A high temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea are not caused by teething," she states. "Teething might cause a mild level of discomfort that should be easily managed. The child should not be unwell and it's crucial parents release this. I've known tragic cases where symptoms have been attributed to teething when in fact the cause has been meningitis."
Of course, the big problem is that babies can't tell us when they are in pain or what level of pain it is. Even if it is 'mild discomfort', recent research by Oxford University concluded that babies have a lower pain threshold than adults - so maybe don't throw out the pain relief just yet.