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Baby Sleep Science Mini Blog: Teething

Teething gets blamed for a lot of sleep disruption. It’s almost a knee – jerk reaction by parents to explain away their child’s frequent night wakings at the first sign of drool or the first time a fist goes into the mouth.

The Science: Your child will teethe on and off for about two years. Pain may be associated with teething and is a true sleep disruptor, but typically it would be just as the tooth is coming up through the sensitive nerve endings near the skin surface. This tender part of tooth eruption may take place over the course of several days, but certainly not weeks on end. Skeptical? You’ll want to take an assessment of your baby’s wake ups to help determine if they are due to teething related pain OR if they are simply about a sleep association you are blaming on teething. PAIN will cause your baby to wake at irregular times. For example: your baby might wake at 10pm when s/he is usually in a very predictable long stretch of sleep. Or, your baby may wake every 15 minutes in the middle of the night – a behavior s/he doesn’t typically exhibit. If your baby is waking at fairly predictable times every 60-90 minutes in the second half of the night, your sleep troubles are probably NOT about teething pain, but probably ARE about a sleep association.

In addition to evaluating the timing of overnight wake ups, watch your baby during the day and before bed. If your baby seems uncomfortable and fussy during the day, if gums appear red, or swollen or if you see a little tooth just below the surface of the gum, your baby may be having some teething related pain and you can expect some disruption overnight. If you have had a fairly normal day (other than exceptional amounts of drool and chewing of the hands and fingers), and there is no tooth in sight, there is no reason to assume teething is waking your baby. In other words – it’s unlikely pain will pop up randomly in the middle of the night due to teething, and drool and mouthing of hands are not necessarily indicators of teething.

The Sleep: For babies who are good sleepers, teething will be almost a non – event. That’s not to say some teeth aren’t harder to teethe than others (incisors and molars are typically more challenging) or that some babies aren’t harder teethers than others. But, if you find yourself blaming sleep disruption on teething for more than 3-4 nights in a row it’s either (1) not about teething or (2) it was about teething, but now has turned into a new sleep association wake up. Bottom line, if your child is in pain all bets are off and s/he needs all the love and support you can give (safely) to get a good night of rest. If your child is NOT having teething pain, or if you think you might be one of those parents who over -uses teething as an excuse for fragmented sleep you’ll probably want to start on some sleep training that feels right to you in order to get back on track!

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