Teething Talk: What to Expect and How to Ease the Discomfort

You’ve probably heard horror stories about teething. Now it’s time to learn the truth.

TeethingThough it results in baby’s first pearly white, teething is one of those milestones that many parents would just assume forget. Cutting teeth can be considerably uncomfortable for babies, who howl and drool for weeks as their first few teeth begin to work their way through the gums. Thankfully not all teething stories are as nightmarish: Some babies get their teeth without as much as a whimper or whine. How babies react to teething varies dramatically from child to child.

When It Starts

Teething can begin as early as 4 months, but most babies will get their first tooth between 6 and 8 months. Teeth often arrive in pairs, with the bottom front two showing up first, followed by the top two. Most babies have eight teeth by their first birthday. The last baby teeth to come in are the back molars, which generally poke through before your child turns 3, giving your little one a precious smile with 20 tiny choppers. These baby teeth won’t fall out until your child’s permanent teeth are ready to come in, usually around age 6 or 7. By then your child will become quite familiar with visits from the Tooth Fairy.

What to Expect

Months before the first tooth appears, your baby will probably start to drool more than usual and become fussy and irritable. Infants produce more saliva during the early stages of teething because their gums are irritated and swollen, and they haven’t yet learned to swallow often. Constant crying, which intensifies at night when baby is lying down, is another unfortunate symptom of teething.


Despite what other parents may tell you, teething does not cause fever or diarrhea. It’s merely a coincidence that teeth begin to erupt when the immunity a baby receives from his mother begins to wear off, leaving him more vulnerable to the germs that cause common childhood illnesses. So if your child is running a fever or suffering from diarrhea, it’s probably because he’s sick—not because he’s teething. Also, ear infections are frequent at this age and can be mistaken for teething pains. If your baby tugs at his ears while crying, he may have an ear infection and need to see the doctor. 

How to Soothe Teething Pains

Start by giving your baby something to chew on, such as water-filled teething rings that can be refrigerated so they give inflamed gums a cooling sensation. Some parents soothe swollen gums with frozen bagels, but many doctors advise against this because the baby can bite off a chunk of the bagel and choke on it. Instead, try giving your baby cooling foods, like applesauce or yogurt. If your baby continues to cry, give her an age-appropriate dose of acetaminophen.

As for your baby’s heavy drooling, be sure to clean her face frequently using a soft cotton cloth. Excessive moisture on a baby’s sensitive skin can cause rashes, dryness and chapping. And remember to dab your child’s saliva rather than wipe her face with a tissue, which can result in further irritation. If your baby’s skin becomes dry or chapped, particularly the area around the mouth and chin, apply a small dab of unscented moisturizing cream or petroleum jelly.

Keeping Baby Teeth Clean

Taking care of your baby’s tiny teeth begins even before the first white cap appears. Start by gently massaging your baby’s gums with a clean, damp washcloth. This will help to keep gums healthy and tooth buds (also called milk teeth) free of food particles. You should continue this ritual throughout the first year of life, when your baby is likely to have eight teeth. A small, soft-bristled toothbrush can be introduced between 12 and 18 months; you’ll have to hold it, though, as children aren’t ready to brush their own teeth until around age 3.

Don’t use fluoride toothpaste on your child’s teeth until at least age 3, when he is old enough not to swallow the toothpaste. Ingesting toothpaste can result in tooth staining or surface irregularities on the enamel. Don’t worry about your little one getting enough fluoride, an important compound that strengthens enamel and prevents tooth decay. Most cities and towns add fluoride to their water systems. If your water comes from a well or you prefer bottled water (which doesn’t contain fluoride), ask your pediatrician or dentist about fluoride supplements.

When to schedule a child’s first dental appointment has been a source of debate among the pediatric community for years. While the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists says babies should have their first dental checkup by age 1, the American Academy of Pediatrics contends that visiting a dental specialist isn’t necessary until age 3, or when all 20 baby teeth are present. Our advice is to use common sense and good judgment. Keep a close eye on your baby’s teeth, and if you notice anything unusual—such as decay or discoloration—contact your pediatrician, who can refer you to a dental specialist.

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