If you’ve just felt a sharp little gum with your finger, or spotted a fresh flash of white when your baby smiles, then you’ll be thinking, ‘Ah! She’s started teething!’
But this process started months and months ago when your baby was just a tiny dot in your womb. And once you understand just what’s happening, you can help her cope with this big change.
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Six weeks after conception, the cells that will eventually become your baby’s teeth started to form underneath her jaw. And, as she grows in your womb, these gradually become more solid and structured so, when she’s born, she has a full set of teeth buds sitting in her jaw. These continue to grow until they’re right underneath her gum line at the grand old age of around four months, which is when teething symptoms normally start.
So don’t be surprised if your baby is grumbling way before you see the first sign of a tooth. Before they break through, her teeth are already putting pressure on her gums and causing her mouth to ache. Gums have the same nerve pathways as cheeks and ears, so this can lead to discomfort in other areas of her face – for example, you might spot her pulling her ear or rubbing her cheek.
One per cent of babies are born with one or more teeth!
When a tooth is ready to come through the gum, you’ll be able to see its white tip just underneath your baby’s gum line. Her body releases a chemical that causes part of her gum to become less dense so the tooth can push through easily. But the tooth still has to break through the top layer of her gum, which can cause some discomfort.
Your baby won’t teeth in quite the same way as any other baby on the planet, so play detective and learn his warning signs. Common symptoms include:
- Dribbling or coughing, which is a sign your baby is making extra saliva as he teethes.
- A few choice nappies or an out-of-the-blue nappy rash from swallowing all that extra drool.
- A warm or flushed cheek.
- Trouble drinking, eating or sleeping.
- Your baby pulling at their ear, chewing their fingers or batting their face.
- Being clingy or cranky.
The buds for different types of her teeth grow at different rates. First to emerge at around six months will be her bottom front two teeth, soon followed a month later by her upper middle teeth. These are her central incisors. At nine to twelve months, she’ll get four more, one on either side of these central teeth, and these are her lateral incisors. They usually emerge in pairs, the two on one side, then the two on the other side. Around 14 months, her first molars, bigger and with a flat surface to crush food, will appear top and bottom, leaving a gap between them and her incisors. At 18 months, four sharper canine teeth fill this top and the bottom, and these are used to tear food. At around 26 months, two pairs of second molars will emerge at the back of her mouth, with broad flat surfaces to grind up her food.
- Central incisors 6-9 months
- Lateral incisors 9-12 months
- First molars 14-18 months
- Canines 18-23 months
- Second molars 26-33 months
Of course, the age at which teeth come through varies enormously, just as some babies talk early and others walk early, although if she reaches her first birthday without any teeth emerging, then it’s a good idea to visit your dentist. But by the time she’s around two and a half, she’s likely to have her full set of 20 baby teeth.
Your baby’s first teeth are whiter than his adult set will be
It’s good to be on the look-out for early symptoms so you’re ready to ease a tooth’s arrival. Irritability as that budding tooth presses on her gums will be your first clue, and a single flushed cheek is a clear sign that a tooth is about to pop through on that side. You’ll also usually be able to see a bulge in her gum and a translucent film or grey bubble over the area. Teething stimulates saliva production, so a flood of dribbles heralds an imminent arrival: to stop this causing chapping, soreness or a teething rash, use a smear of Vaseline or nipple balm around her mouth and on her chin to form a moisture barrier, and pop on a bib.
You’ll find that she reacts differently to these various teeth types coming through – and that what soothes an incisor might not work so well on a molar, which is why it’s great to have an arsenal of ways to help your baby. Her front teeth have flatter, thinner edges and tend to slide through her gums so are usually the easiest to cut. So although she may grumble with these first teeth, it’s because the discomfort is a new sensation for her. It will take around eight days for the tooth to push through the gum and another few months to continue growing to full size at a rate of 1mm a month.
With some teeth, she might not feel up to feeding as the suction can make her sore gums feel worse and if she’s weaning she might also refuse solid foods. Be persistent as hunger usually wins out, but if she’s reluctant to feed for a few days, give your doctor a call to check everything’s ok.
Your baby may also bite to relieve the pressure in her gums, so receiving a nip on your fingers or while you’re breastfeeding can indicate a tooth is well on its way. Some babies might have all these symptoms while others may sail through without a sign, and some teeth might cause a run of restless nights, which others will pop up one morning without warning. Whichever you find, there are lots of ways that will help your baby when she needs it, and the secret is to experiment and mix and match your methods with each new tooth to find what really works.
To numb your baby’s gums, give her a teether
that’s been chilled in the fridge for half an hour. Or if she’s over six months, offer her some cold water in a cup. Depending on her age, feed her chilled fruit purées or pop a chunk of frozen banana or plums in a baby feeder mesh bag for her to gnaw on safely.
Experiment with teething toys to find one that offers just the right pressure to ease discomfort. And have a selection of different shapes too: circular teethers are best when she’s cutting her front teeth but she’ll need a longer, thinner design to reach her molars.
The crook of your little finger makes a great teether – but do wash your hands first. And, if she’s restless at night, gently press on her gum with your little finger – it’s a great way to soothe her without waking her up.
A teething necklace
can also be a great option for on the go.
Meet the expert: Claire Stevens is a consultant in paediatric dentistry and mum of two.