What does the word 'teething' mean?

Teething literally means 'cutting teeth' and the appearance of that first tooth in a baby’s mouth is certainly a milestone event for every parent.

Babies cut their teeth in a particular order, but at widely varying ages. Early teething does not mean that your baby is more advanced than babies who cut their teeth later.

When can I expect to see a first tooth?

A baby's first tooth will probably appear somewhere between six and seven months, although teething can start as early as five months. The first tooth will be a lower incisor (front tooth) and it is usually closely followed by its next-door neighbour. The second group of teeth will be the top incisors, which can appear anywhere from six to nine months. Sometimes the four top front teeth make their appearance almost one after the other.

These will be followed by the remaining two lower incisors so that, by the time your baby is about ten months old, they could have a row of four top and four bottom front teeth. What a wonderful smile to look forward to!

There is no hard and fast rule with regard to the appearance of your baby’s teeth. If they haven’t got a mouthful of gleaming white teeth before they are 10 months old, don’t rush off to your doctor or dentist to see what is the matter. Most likely, there is nothing the matter and teeth will appear when they are ready - just like every other baby.

Will my baby be sick when teething?

Teething is blamed for a myriad of illnesses in babies and small children but, in truth, the appearance of those first teeth in your baby should cause no more discomfort than a slightly inflamed gum, a lot of dribbling and a great deal of chewing.

Teething cannot cause convulsions, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, lethargy or high fever. If your baby is exhibiting any of those symptoms they are probably genuinely ill and needs to be seen by your GP. Every year, a small number of babies end up in Irish hospitals with serious illnesses because their parents put their symptoms down to teething and neglect to seek medical advice. However, experienced parents will tell you that individual children are more likely to get particular complaints e.g. diarrhoea or nappy rash at the time they are teething.

This does not of course mean that you must head off to your GP each time your baby sneezes but, if they seem genuinely ill or off-colour, do not always assume that the cause is teething. If in doubt, always seek medical advice, particularly with babies under six months old.

Can babies chew with their front teeth?

The question to ask yourself here is: 'Do adults chew with their front teeth?' Of course they don't and babies don't either! Your baby's first teeth are for biting off food, which is one of the reasons why they must be given plenty of things to bite once those front teeth appear.

Babies use their gums to chew and they perfect this technique long before the appearance of their back teeth. A baby with a solitary front tooth will not be able to chew food with it but will most certainly be able to chew the food with their gums once in the mouth.

How do babies learn how to chew?

Babies teach themselves how to chew and they do this as soon as they can get their hands (and everything else!) into their mouths.

As soon as that first tooth appears, babies must be given food so that they can acquire the essential skill of chewing food. Babies who are given few semi-liquid, sloppy foods until their back teeth appear very often find it exceedingly difficult to cope with solid food and may refuse it altogether. Teaching a child of a year old how to eat solid food is not easy!

Giving your baby bits of hard food to chew and suck on is a very good way of ensuring that they will be able to make a smooth transition from semi-liquid food to family meals later on.

Foods which are suitable for chewing and sucking on include: peeled pieces of apple; sugar-free rusks; plain biscuits; raw scrubbed carrots; fingers of toast, etc. Rather than feeding these foods to your baby it is a much better idea to allow them to take them in their own hands and get them into his mouth (eventually!). Besides, it is much more fun for them that way as well.

Remember never to leave your child alone while they are eating as babies can choke very easily. If a piece of food does get stuck in their windpipe, a gentle tap between the shoulder blades should be enough to bring it up.

When do the first molars appear?

The molars are the chewing teeth and you can expect to see your child’s first molar on, or around, their first birthday. In fact, your child will be ‘teething’ right throughout the time between their first and second birthday, and the arrival of their molars may make them quite irritable and miserable at times.

While they are getting molars there is very little you can do to ease your child’s discomfort. Molars are much bigger teeth than incisors and canines, so they can be quite painful as they cut through the gum. Your child may have a very red cheek and may also be very fretful, irritable and in need of constant nursing and attention.

Rubbing the affected gum with your finger may provide some relief, as may a teething ring, which has a cool gel inside it. Other than that, you will just have to be patient and supportive while those molars are coming through.

How do I care for my child’s teeth?

Opinions differ as to when you should first start brushing your baby’s teeth, but all the experts agree that you should certainly introduce a toothbrush before your baby’s first birthday. Those first attempts at brushing will be harmless, but at least your baby will be anxious to grab the toothbrush and put it in their mouth.

Once they have their molars, your child should be encouraged to brush their teeth twice a day with a flouride toothpaste. Only use a very small amount of toothpaste on the toothbrush. Make sure to limit the intake of sweet, sugary foods and drinks as these are most likely to produce the acids which cause tooth decay.

The fact that your child is going to lose their first teeth anyway is no excuse for poor dental hygiene practices. If you lay down the ground rules for proper dental hygiene as early as possible, there is more likelihood that your child will take pride in their teeth and will go through life looking after their teeth properly.

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