Ask the Doctors

Tips on Soothing Your Teething Baby

Dear Doctor: My son has started teething, and I'd like to ease his discomfort. I see that several homeopathic teething products have been recalled. Could they really be dangerous? If so, what are my options?

Dear Reader: It's six months into your baby's first year. Chances are, you've finally got a good parental rhythm going. Your sleep deficit is manageable, and your child is increasingly engaged in the world around him. Just as you're thinking that maybe you've got this parenting thing figured out, here come the joys of teething.

Babies enter the world with 20 primary teeth ready to emerge from their jawbones and through their gums. Six months is the average age at which that momentous first tooth makes its appearance, but it can happen anywhere between 3 and 12 months of age. And while plenty of babies breeze right through with minimal fuss, for others it's prime time for more than a little crankiness.

As the rough surface of the tooth advances, it can make the gums swell and ache. Some babies will drool freely, which can cause skin rash and irritations. And because Mother Nature apparently has a wry sense of humor, the process of tooth eruption -- that's when the tooth breaks through the gum -- tends to be more active at night. Say hello again to sleepless nights.

With multiple teething stages to deal with as lower and upper teeth, canines and molars emerge in the next two-plus years, parents want safe and effective ways to smooth (and soothe) this time of transition.

One remedy, available since the early 1900s, has been the herbal teething tablet. However, tests recently performed by the Food and Drug Administration on tablets by Hyland, a well-known maker of homeopathic products, revealed inconsistent amounts of belladonna, sometimes more than was listed on the label. Belladonna is an herbal ingredient with sedative effects that, in excessive quantities, can be toxic. Symptoms include lethargy, muscle weakness, constipation, excessive sleepiness, flushed skin, breathing difficulty and seizures.

The FDA asked Hyland to voluntarily recall its teething tablets and gels, which it did. The FDA has since also warned consumers that all homeopathic teething products may pose health risks for infants and children.

So how can you safely help your teething baby?

Although over-the-counter soothers like Orajel are an option, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that topical preparations wash away within minutes. For extreme discomfort, you may opt for an infant pain reliever. Always check with your pediatrician for proper dosage and duration of use.

After that, it's the age-old basics: pressure, massage, cold and cuddling.

-- Teething toys: Find an array of smooth, solid (not liquid-filled) toys for your baby to chew on. Rings are a nice option because they're easy for little hands to hold.

-- Massage: Use a clean finger and gentle pressure on baby's tender gums.

-- Ice: Freeze the toys for another element of pain relief. A wet washcloth, wrung out and then frozen, offers both cold and texture.

-- And don't forget the power of a soothing cuddle. Chances are that during the stress of teething time, the benefits will go both ways.

Do you have a great teething remedy to share? We'd love to hear from you!

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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