Does Baby Teething Hurt

We take a look at whether baby teething is the source of all those sleepless nights
Last updated: July 8, 2019

There won’t be a parent on earth who won’t have heard or used the term teething at some point to explain why their baby is upset or not quite themselves. There are absolutely loads of articles on baby teething and how to deal with it online and we aren’t going to be writing another one that repeats the same thing again. Instead, this article takes a closer look at when teething can start for your baby, how long teething is likely to last for and whether or not teething can be blamed for your baby’s crankiness.

One of the reasons why we wrote this article came about when a colleague of mine mentioned that teething is at its worst as the teeth are “coming in to the face”. That got us thinking about baby teething in a completely different way and actually got us debating how much discomfort teething actually causes. A baby’s set of teeth are growing all of the time but they aren’t cranky all the time – so, when exactly IS the most uncomfortable phase of baby teething? Well, we didn’t know the answer at first (and technically still don’t) but after doing some research we decided to put everything together for others to (hopefully) benefit from and learn a thing or two.

What is baby teething?

From a parent’s point of view and not a scientific one, teething is the word we would use to describe the primary set of teeth coming in to the babies gums and then erupting causing discomfort and a few other things which may or may not be linked (more on this later). However, is every stage teething? Are they teething before they erupt or is teething only when they start to actually come out of the gums? Technically, you could say that the entire process could be called teething but that would mean that they are teething for 3 years? That doesn’t seem right, therefore it’s best to take a look at every stage of teething to help you understand a little bit more about what’s going on with your baby’s little pegs.

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Baby Teething Stages

In utero

Babies will have teeth buds growing before they are even born! Nothing really happens except for the future tooth’s foundations being placed in their very primitive jaw. In terms of actual teeth there will be none present and there won’t be any sign in the gums either. However, this is an important stage as the roots do begin to grow into teeth shortly after birth. This stage is definitely not what people call teething, though. 

Pre Eruption

After birth, the roots will continue to grow and build actual teeth in holes in the jaw. This is a part that a lot of people aren’t familiar with or have never wondered. What does a baby’s jaw look like before the teeth come out? An easier way to describe it is with an x ray

Baby Teething Jaw

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In short, a baby’s jaw is filled with teeth being pushed up by other (permanent) teeth in waiting. This means that even before you’ve seen your baby’s first tooth there is still plenty of things going on before then, meaning that babies can be ‘teething’ from birth all the way up to the 6 month mark when the first tooth is about to emerge.

We mentioned our colleague saying ‘teething coming into the face’ as the worst part, and this is what that refers to.

Some have argued that this period is the worst for babies discomfort and not the actual eruption phase. You can probably imagine that the baby teeth and the permanent teeth are wreaking havoc on the gums along with everything else going on with their lives at that time.

Anyway, slowly the roots are growing, the teeth themselves are growing and the permanent teeth in waiting are pushing them up which what leads to the next phase of baby teething – the eruption phase.

The end of the pre eruption phase looks like the below, and as you can see from the dark red marks that the gums are at the end of their tether, but as we discuss later on, the teeth are not quite cutting through as hormones cause the gums to break down allowing the teeth to come through without violence.

Baby's Gums

Eruption

Each and every baby’s growth stages are completely different and your baby’s teeth will start to come out when they’re good and ready. However, as a general rule, baby’s first teeth will start to erupt and become visible from 6 months onwards. 

The order they come out are the front bottom two followed by the front top four. By their first birthday the fat molars in the back start to come through which can be particularly painful due to their size and flat surface, meaning they don’t pierce the gums as well as the front set of teeth. Here’s a picture of my son’s first peg coming out at around 7 months- as you can see, his gums are not dark red or particularly swollen and at the time he was not particularly grumpy which may suggest that this part of the teething process may not be that bad (so far!)

First Tooth Appearing

Believe it or not, it can take up to 3 years before all of the baby teeth have emerged. That’s an awfully long time when you think about it – which begs the question that they can’t possible be grumpy with teething pain for a full 3 years can they?!

If you want to know more specifics about how teething works in the first 3 years then there’s plenty of resources online, however for most parents there’s not much more you need to know other than what’s covered and what’s going to be covered in the rest of the article.

How long does baby teething last for?

Babies should begin teething at roughly 6 months old with the front bottom teeth and should stop teething after 3 years when all of their milk teeth come in. However, they transition to a toddler in between these dates so technically a baby will only teeth for as long as they are a baby. 

How much does teething hurt?

This is the whole point of this article. Put it simply, we will never know the answer to this question truly as a baby is unable to communicate properly and they are too young to form memories of this time in their lives, therefore we can only speculate the discomfort teething causes at best. During our research into the subject we found that are two trains of thought – one, teething does hurt and the other…that it does. We’re going to break both of these theories down and why and you can make your mind up which one you believe. 

Teething hurts, but how much it hurts varies from baby to baby

The first theory is that of course the process of teething hurts and causes discomfort to the baby. Teeth are literally being pushed through the gums slowly and violently erupting causing swelling and blood to come out. However, what we don’t know is in what way is teething painful, and by that we mean is it a dull pain, a sharp pain, nerve pain or the sort of pain when you’ve got an open wound and touching it stings. Teething could also be a constant annoyance and the reason they cry is because of frustration and being fed up of the discomfort. Alternatively, it could be a mixture of a few of the above.

Our comment at this point is that we have doubts that the discomfort is constant as a baby is not crying 24 hours a day. Imagine that.

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Secondly, teething pain seems to come and go and sometimes with great intensity (or at least that’s how it seems) otherwise a baby would be insufferable for 3 years straight. Teeth are constantly being pushed through but it does feel that there are the odd growth spurt which could lead to the occasional night of crying.

Thirdly, as is the case with adults it seems that babies have different levels of pain thresholds. There have been reports from mums who say that their babies did not seem to be bothered by teething whilst others have said that their babies have had a terrible time with it. What we’re trying to say here is that teething does hurt and is uncomfortable but some babies can handle it differently to others and as such, searching online to see if what your baby is going through is ‘normal’ may not get the answer you’re looking for.

Some evidence to suggest this theory:

  • Swelling and bleeding causes discomfort in adults so why not babies?
  • Teething rings and toys seem to alleviate symptoms and settle them down
  • Cranky behaviour seems to correlate with the emergence of teeth
  • Babies appear to be put off from their food suggesting they avoid further discomfort

Other baby condition articles

We’ve covered a few other articles relating to conditions baby’s can experienc, check them out:

Teething doesn’t hurt, it’s other things causing them discomfort

There’s a somewhat controversial theory that is supported by a few sources that suggests that teething doesn’t actually hurt and it’s other things going on that may make a baby upset. The thinking behind this is that growing teeth is as natural as growing hair and nails and that it seems daft why the body would purposefully undergo a process that’s painful (should we remind the source about child birth?). 

Dr. Karen Fitzgerald, consultant paediatric dental surgeon at Our Lady’s Hospital in Dublin’s Crumlin had this to say “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.”

Now, we aren’t saying we agree with Karen but we can certainly see where she is coming from – babies have a not-yet-formed immune system and are likely to get ill up to 20 times a year – what Karen is saying is that it’s your baby’s fever or another condition is the true cause of the discomfort and not the emerging teeth. This does make sense doesn’t it?

On top of this, notice that 6-7 year olds who are getting much larger teeth come through don’t seem to complain about teething and they have it much worse (we think). So, does Karen have a point? Well, if you remember at the beginning of the article we said that we will never know as babies can’t communicate so what we’ll say is that Karen could be right but she could also be wrong but regardless she has certainly given us all some food for thought on the issue of whether teething hurts or not.

What Dr. Fitzgerald is suggesting here is that when your baby is being cranky around the time of teething that teething aids should be put aside and other methods of soothing should be explored such as a cuddle or toys and not to jump straight for teething rings, calpol and all the other gubbins that companies make a fortune out of parents with. When teeth come through they are more likely to have a higher temperature and susceptible to catch viruses so perhaps dealing with these could alleviate their grump. Could it be that there is a great conspiracy by mega conglomerates who use teething as a way to push products we don’t really need? Who knows.

Either way, here are some evidence that suggests teething doesn’t hurt

  • Gums die to allow teeth to pass through so they don’t cut through violently
  • Teething products actually aggravate the gums causing the discomfort 
  • It’s other symptoms that are causing discomfort (fever etc)
  • Older children getting adult teeth don’t appear to be troubled

So there we have it, two very strong arguments on whether teething hurts or not. From our point of view, neither change anything – while your babies teeth are emerging you are more likely to have a grumpy baby whether it’s teething directly or something else. The only difference is whether you feel you need to provide your baby with baby teething products or something else. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this – do you think teething pain is a myth or do you swear by the fact that it’s very uncomfortable for baby?

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Is teething the reason for your babies crankiness?

This section is an extension to the previous part which looks at whether baby teething actually hurts or not. In brief, whether or not teething actually hurts and causes discomfort the fact remains that the first 12 months of a baby’s life is pretty turbulent and there’s so much going on for them that they are often cranky for one reason or another which brings us to the question if it’s right or fair to blame teething on everything, as it seems so easy to do.

The reason we wanted to write about this is to perhaps raise some awareness that teething isn’t the only thing going on in the world for a baby and sometimes giving them teething toys and medicine may not be the correct course of action. It can be quite easy to fall into the trap of blaming your baby’s bad mood on their teeth coming through as well as misjudging your baby when they may genuinely be poorly.

So, with this in mind, these are some of the signs of a baby who is teething:

  • The desire to chew and bite
  • Lack of appetite
  • Drooling
  • Flushed/rosy cheeks
  • Irritability
  • Fever

Notice that we’ve bolded two of the symptoms – the desire to chew and bite and drooling – because we feel these are ‘clear’ signs of teething whereas the other symptoms are shared with a massive variety of other illnesses and conditions, most of which are harmless. In our opinion, if they aren’t trying to bite and chew and drooling, it’s probably not teething.

Conclusion

To conclude, we do feel there is definitely some merit to further explore baby teething and whether or not it causes discomfort. If you are a parent then you will know for sure just how much of an impact this phase of their life has on stress levels of everyone in the house – but what if we discovered a new trick that makes this period easier and the real cause of a cranky is found? Well, that would certainly change things but people over at Calpol HQ would not be best pleased. 

We’d love your thoughts on this, please let us know in the comments! 

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