Teething sucks. There, I said it.
And it basically never ends, right? From when they’re about six months old (earlier, if you’re unlucky!) until they’re at least two and a half, there’s always a tooth that’s about to come through, a tooth coming through, or at tooth that just came through.
On the plus side, you always have an excuse for whatever socially-unacceptable behavior your child exhibits (Oh, sorry he doesn’t want to go to you, Auntie Em, he’s teething).
Teething means that for at least two years, you can be woken up any night, at any time, any number of times, by a crying, fussing baby. And sleepy parents are not happy parents. So we’re desperate to just make it stop. Which means we’re susceptible to endless marketing aiming to get us to buy whatever might get them to just go to sleep.
The problem is, many teething remedies are downright dangerous!
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Learn which teething remedies are safe and which you should skip, as well as what the best natural teething remedies are.
Hazardous teething remedies
Most of these teething meds have been pulled off the market, but in case you see any old bottles/tubes of medication lying around, you’ll know what to avoid.
Safety of teething gel for babies
Teething gels, such as Baby Orajel, contain chemicals related to benzocaine. Do not use these medicines!
Back when General Leia was a baby, I refused to use Baby Orajel (much to family’s chagrin, “I used teething gel on you and you were fine!”) because I knew it could cause problems with a breastfeeding baby’s latch, potentially leading to early weaning.
Now, there’s even more convincing evidence that numbing agents are not suitable for children.
There have been years of studies showing that benzocaine can affect hemoglobin, the protein complex in your blood that carries oxygen throughout your body. It’s important that this chemical isn’t damaged! In severe situations, benzocaine can actually cause babies and toddlers to stop breathing.
And don’t assume that because your baby has used numbing gel and been fine before, he’ll continue to have no problems. Some children are struck even after having used Orajel previously several times.
In fact, the US FDA issued a statement in May 2018 that they would no longer allow companies to sell benzocaine-containing drugs for babies. The risk, while unlikely, is just too serious. If you go to Orajel’s website, you’ll see that they’ve discontinued their entire line of teething products. But many people have tubes they previously purchased in their home. Don’t use old tubes of teething gel just because you have it around.
Homeopathic teething tablets
Teething tablets are another item that have recently been taken off the market but might still be lying around the house. Teething tablets contain belladona, also known as the poison nightshade. Each tablet is only supposed to contain 0.0000000000002 mg belladona extract. At this low a dose, the belladonna shouldn’t cause any damage.
Here’s the problem, though. Imagine you were making a huge cake and were making enough batter to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool (Gross, I know, but stay with me). Pretend that the cake’s secret ingredient is 1/10,000 tsp of poison, mixed into the entire pool-sized amount of batter (about the same ratio as the amount of belladona per teething tablet).
Without going into all the science behind it (that nerdiness is part of what I did for my chemistry degree), it would be nearly impossible to 1. mix that tiny amount of poison evenly into the batter, and 2. test to make sure each individual cake slice had the right amount of poison.
All this to say, Hyland’s teething tablets would probably be safe if they were made to the exact specifications on the bottle. The problem is, it’s very difficult to make sure that they contain exactly what they say they do. In fact, the US FDA has said that according to their testing, the amount of belladonna per tablet is not consistent. One tablet might have much less belladonna, while another has way too much.
Bottom line: While most teething tablets are harmless, you’d hate to get the one that isn’t. So it’s best to just get rid of any old teething tablets you have.
Safer medicines for teething
Not all over-the-counter medications are dangerous for babies, as long as you know how to use them. Tylenol and Motrin are safe under certain conditions.
Safety of acetaminophen (Tylenol) for babies
This drug is a familiar pain relievers/fever reducer. When given occasionally at the correct dose, it can be fine. But it does have its dangers.
Tylenol at too high a dose can cause life-threatening, irreversible liver damage.
Something to keep in mind with Tylenol is that is has a relatively low therapeutic index. Bottom line: it’s easier to OD with acetaminophen than with most other over-the-counter drugs. That’s why its so freaking important to make sure your kids can’t accidentally get into your meds, even something as everyday as Tylenol.
Safety of ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) for babies
Giving anyone (child or adult) Motrin or Advil day after day for an extended period of time can cause kidney damage or stomach ulcers. While you’re less likely to cause acute damage with ibuprofen as with acetaminophen, you still need to be aware of the possible dangers of it.
NOTE: Never give ibuprofen to a child under six months old. After six months, you can use ibuprofen.
Using OTC pain relievers for teething babies
This is not to say to never use Tylenol or Advil/Motrin! I’ve used both for my own children when they are in a really bad bout of teething. But I try save it for when the problem is severe: He or she has been crying/fussing for a long time at night and has swollen gums where a tooth is clearly working to pop through. I limit their use to a few days, and I switch out which one from day to day I use to minimize risk.
The other trick is to be careful with dosages. Be aware: the volume of ibuprofen that you give your child is generally much less than the volume of Tylenol per dose, so make sure to know which medicine you’re working with (especially those times you wake up exhausted at 2AM to give your kid some meds).
For some reason, infant pain reliever bottles don’t come with a dosage table on them (seriously, why?), but here are up-to-date dosage charts for both acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil).
Natural teething remedies
I’ll be honest, at 2AM, it’s much easier to click into the habit of stumbling into the bathroom and grabbing some Tylenol for a screaming baby than it is to actually think through another way to handle the situation.
But there are several natural teething remedies that are really helpful! Try these out.
Best teething rings and toys
The classic remedy for a teething baby is a teething ring. These little toys are usually textured and the right shape to provide pain relief for your little one.
Classic shapes like these can be put in the fridge to provide extra relief (but don’t put them in the freezer, since they might burst). In addition, these are BPA free to protect your little one.
I also like these toys. They’re super cute and made from food-grade silicone. And because they aren’t water filled, they can be put in the freezer. Just keep them there so that when you need one in the middle of the night, you can just pull it out and be ready.
Frozen washcloth for teething
If you don’t have any teething toys on hand, a (clean!) baby washcloth, soaked with water and left in the freezer, is also a great natural teething remedy. In addition, your baby can suck on the washcloth and get water out, which might be soothing. Just be careful not to let him have the frozen cloth on his gums too long, since that could hurt.
Fresh food holders for baby
Some people really like to freeze food into a holder for babies to teethe on.
The idea is that you take a soft food (think roasted sweet potatoes or maybe blueberries), put them in the mesh, and then let your child chew on it. If you freeze the food before giving it to baby, it can be a nice teething remedy.
My problem with these food holders is that they’re messy and gross. I really don’t want to pull half chewed-up food out of the holder when my kid is done with it, but that’s just me. Besides, I’d rather just feed my children whole foods using baby-led weaning.
RELATED: What is baby led weaning? Why I love it
The best natural teething remedy
My favorite option (shout-out to my friend Alison, to whom I am forever grateful for this idea!) is frozen veggies. Once your child is old enough to pick things up with her fingers (8-10 months), you can get her a little bowl of frozen peas and bring them to her. She can easily pick them up without mess, and the peas will cool her gums.
I’ve found that when I’ve been awake enough to actually remember and execute this trick, my little one will eat a few peas, calm down, and then finally be ready to nurse back to sleep.
Plus, now my three older kids (6, 4, and 3) think it’s perfectly acceptable for me to give them still-frozen mixed veggies, peas, or carrots to eat as a snack or as part of dinner. I have reliable vegetables I know my kids will eat any night, and all I have to do is open a bag.
RELATED: 6 ways to help your picky kid eat better
Conclusions on natural teething remedies
I hope these remedies help your baby get some relief and you to get some rest! Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever tried any of these natural teething remedies. I wish relief for your little one and sleep for you. Happy parenting!