If as kids we were lucky enough to have children younger than us around, we may well have a fond, amusing memory of our mum or grandmother who, armed with a teaspoon, would place this funny gauging tool on our brother's or sister's gums, or our cousin's, to see if we could hear them “ticking”.
If you heard that metallic sound then it meant that a tooth was about to push through the gum, and you’d be sure to see the child gleefully smiling while the grownups all around would clap their hands celebrating the event.
The first teeth to appear are the bottom and top incisors, and as they are very visible and easy to detect, the “teaspoon test” never usually fails. They erupt when a baby is around 6-8 months old, the age when deciduous teething begins, with so-called “milk teeth”, and the process is complete at 30-36 months with a full set of 20 baby teeth. These are obviously general parameters since every child develops at different rates, so there is nothing unusual for the teething process to occur earlier or later, particularly if the child’s parents shared a similar situation (if mum started teething when she was around 10 months old, the same could be the case for her child).
Clearly if the teething process is too protracted, there are paediatricians and paediatric dentists around who can resolve any query on the matter.
Behaviour during the teething process
Sometimes, when their child is going through this process, you hear parents saying, “Forget it, he/she’s been teething in the last couple of days and he/she’s behaving so oddly”, but in order to explain this comment there are several related aspects worth looking into.
Since teething is a growth process, we need to be aware that, just like every other developmental leap, it can have physical as well as behavioural effects. In this case, we often see swollen gums (with a white dot below the surface, the future tooth), for example, which can cause discomfort, and that’s why children seem to turn into little squirrels, putting any object they can find into their mouth and chewing on it to give their gums a natural massage for some relief.
Teething usually also leads to more drooling than usual, so we see mothers changing their baby’s bib more frequently because it gets soaked from excess saliva. The fact that children perceive that changes are occurring in their body also causes slight changes in their sleep pattern (making our little ones somewhat more irritable), or they may feel discomfort when they eat, when something too hot hits the tooth pushing against the gum it causes additional discomfort.
The old myth that teething causes a fever has been debunked by paediatricians, who all agree that there is actually no causal link between them. It may be that since the child is going through a change, as explained above, it is reasonable to suppose that their body is undergoing such major physical changes that it will be more vulnerable and sensitive to seasonal illnesses.
It is crucial to remember that this only lasts for a limited period of time because, as a rule, once the tooth has cut through the gum, it will no longer cause any discomfort, so you can rest assured that the “little squirrel” will stop chewing on everything and the feeling of discomfort will disappear in a few days.
A few tips for parents
Since teething is a natural physiological process, there is very little we can do to help complete its development, but there are some small steps we can take to make things easier during this period:
- if the child is in acute discomfort, we can buy some special “little toys” that are safe to chew on. They feature a rubber ring filled with a gel that can be cooled in the fridge. The child can chew on the ring, effectively massaging the aching spot and thus relieving the discomfort;
- diet is always very important, but at this particular time it is vital to ensure that the child has a healthy, varied diet, possibly not too high in sugar as that can harm milk teeth, which are obviously more delicate than permanent teeth;
- play is always a good ally for all children during whatever changes they are going through, and it makes good sense to get them used to cleaning their teeth straight after a meal. It might therefore be a good idea to turn teeth-cleaning time into a shared play activity, by associating this moment with a nursery rhyme invented by yourself, for example, or treating it as a “special mission”. There are toothbrushes designed with little ones in mind as well as different kinds of toothpaste suitable for their age, and getting them into the habit of cleaning their teeth, initially as a game and later as a good dental hygiene routine, helps greatly in ensuring dental health;
- a final aspect concerns prevention: there are dedicated preventive care programmes specially designed for kids, so you’ll be able to find out from a paediatric dentist at what age it is possible to have a professional check-up of your child's teething process and state of health of their little teeth.
Lastly, one little strategy that helps whenever your child is going through a period of transition: extra cuddles and hugs! They won’t make the discomfort caused by teething disappear, but they will certainly have a strong calming and soothing effect on your little ones.