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.
With this in mind, we’ll look at several remedies, both currently in use and recently pulled from US shelves, and determine what can be helpful, what isn’t helpful, and what is potentially harmful.
Benzocaine in teething gels
This is the numbing medication in medicines such as Baby Orajel. Do not use this! 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.
Five years later, 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. At its most severe, benzocaine can actually cause babies and toddlers to stop breathing.
And don’t assume that because your baby has tolerated numbing gel before, he’ll continue to do so. 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 great. 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 those either.
Homeopathic remedies for teething
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 (yes, this ratio is about the same ratio as the amount of belladona per teething tablet. It’s insanely small).
When the poison is mixed evenly at this small an amount, it won’t hurt anyone. BUT, how confident are you that you can actually distribute that tiny amount (so small that you can’t even see it!) into the batter evenly?
Next, you have to have quality control to make sure the special ingredient is distributed evenly so you don’t get anyone sick. You divvy the cake up into (a whole lot of) reasonably-sized slices.
You test some slices to make sure they have the right amount of secret ingredient. Do you even have an instrument that can detect the tiny amount of poison in one slice? Probably not. You’ll probably have to test a hundred, maybe even a thousand slices at a time, to get enough poison to actually detect.
In this case, it will be impossible to tell whether you (miraculously) did stir the batter well enough to have the exact same amount of poison in every slice, or if one of the thousand slices was unlucky and contained pretty much all the poison, while the others had very little in them.
All this to say, while the Hyland’s teething tablets probably would be safe if they were made to the exact specifications on the bottle, they likely aren’t, because that’s just not how life works. In fact, the US FDA has said that according to their testing, the amount of belladonna per tablet is not consistent.
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 the ones you have.
Over the counter pain relievers
Acetaminophen / Tylenol to relieve teething
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.
Ibuprofen / Advil for teething pain
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.
Are OTC pain relievers safe for 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).
Non-medicine based teething remedies
I’ll be honest, at 2AM (yes, it’s always 2AM, unless it’s 4AM), 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.
Teething rings or frozen washcloths
When you do have your wits about you, though, a teething ring from the fridge or a washcloth that’s been soaked in water and then frozen are both very helpful for your baby to chew on.
My very favorite 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. 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 five year old and three year old think it’s perfectly acceptable for me to give them still-frozen mixed veggies, peas, or crinkle-cut carrots to eat as a snack or as part of dinner. Less effort for me, and my kids happily eat veggies. Win-win!
Conclusions on teething remedies
I hope these remedies help your baby get some relief and you to get some rest! Please SHARE this info with other parents to help them soothe and protect their children (and hey, get some much-needed sleep). Happy parenting!