“She must be teething.” I wish I could tell you how many times Jason and I said that very sentence, assuming Olivia’s sleep challenges must be connected to teething.
I’m also embarrassed to tell you how many times we gave her baby Tylenol because we thought she must surely be in pain and therefore not sleeping. Actually, I can’t tell you how many times because it was A LOT!
Teething seems to be the ultimate scapegoat when it comes to sleep, and understandably so.
As first time parents, especially, we had no idea what teething looked like. “Her gums will be swollen,” the pediatrician told us. We had no idea what that even meant!
And even if we did know what it meant, how often are you actually able to see those little swollen bumps with a wiggly baby?
As second time parents, we at least knew what we were looking for, but those top teeth still seem impossible to predict, and don’t even get me started with molars!
What does teething look like?
With my girls, the most consistent sign they were teething was drool. The drool game was REAL! We would go through soaked onesie after soaked onsie, and soaked bib after soaked bib.
Olivia was never really one to gnaw on things or even put toys in her mouth, however Avery certainly did, which made teething toys extra helpful.
Even though she doesn’t put as many toys in her mouth now and isn’t a thumb or finger sucker, Avery does start putting her fingers in her mouth a lot more when a tooth is coming in. I’ve even caught her gnawing on a chair!
Extra fussiness is another common sign our little ones are teething. As those little teeth start making their way up, your baby may feel some extra pressure in their mouth and it certainly seems to be uncomfortable.
But just because a baby is drooling, or mouthing toys, or is extra fussy, doesn’t automatically mean they’re teething; those are all part of being a baby!
Swollen gums are another sign your baby is teething, and those are definitely more reliable (once you know what you’re looking for!). Even then, it could still be several days before the tooth actually cuts through.
All of this to say, there are certainly signs that your little one is teething, however I don’t want those teething signs to send you into a tizzy because you’re already assuming sleep will be terrible. So…
How does teething affect babies’ and toddlers’ sleep?
Guess what…sometimes it doesn’t!! My girls have absolutely woken up and boom, there’s a tooth (or two!). But some teeth have disrupted their sleep! And no, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern with which teeth it is.
While babies often feel the pressure of a tooth slowly making its way up for a week or two, if the discomfort is actually going to affect sleep, it’s likely only going to be during the day or two the tooth is actually cutting through the gums.
Which means it might only cause extra stirrings or full wakings for one or two nights. So when I have families who tell me their child’s sleep has been off for several weeks, and they think it’s likely due to teething, I know we need to dig more.
If teething were truly the big bad sleep disrupter that so many of us assume it is, our babies and kids would never sleep!
They get new teeth until they’re 2-3 years old (hello, molars!), and then once they start losing baby teeth, adult teeth start growing in.
That’s a long time to be “teething” and that would be several years of missed sleep for all of us.
I am not saying teething isn’t uncomfortable and doesn’t affect little ones’ sleep, but it does not affect sleep as much as we blame it for. So let’s break it down a bit more.
I want to start by saying, every child is different!
We have friends whose son is just three days older than Olivia, and it’s been so fun to navigate parenthood together and watch how our kiddos change and develop so similarly but also so differently! He started walking sooner than she did, she started talking earlier than he did, he started falling asleep independently far before she did, but she woke up around 7 am and he got stuck at 4 am.
They’re just DIFFERENT! Olivia’s sleep started going off the rails when she was about four months old, and I remember it was within a month or two that this friend’s little guy started teething. I actually think he popped 2-4 teeth before Olivia had any!
BUT, because he was teething, and they were so close in age, and her sleep had been so off, we thought it was surely teething. Cue baby Tylenol because we just had no idea, and cue Olivia NOT cutting any teeth for a few more months.
Each tooth can even look different for the same child! One of Avery’s top teeth caused her to stir more one night, and sure enough, we could feel it through her gums the next morning.
Her two bottom molars came within days of each other, and those nights were not awesome. But her top molars are coming through as I write this, and we never would have known had Jason not caught a glimpse today!
Let them sleep!
A well-rested baby and one with independent sleep skills often handles teething better than one who’s not sleeping well.
If a baby is already overtired or sleep is already a struggle, that extra discomfort could add that much more stimulation to make sleep more of a struggle for a few days.
Whereas if there’s a babe whose norm is falling asleep independently and sleeping through the night, they will most often be able to fall back asleep, even after stirring a bit more than usual at night.
And if the pressure is really bothering them, we need to go help, and end up pulling out all the stops and breaking all the “rules” just to sleep? Those sleep skills will still be there the next day to hop back on track!
What can we do to relieve teething pain and discomfort?
Because of the pressure happening in our babies’ gums while teething, having something to chew on is helpful. If your baby is still young, they may need help holding the teether, getting it to their mouth, or keeping it in their mouth.
If they’re older, try to keep teething toys out and within reach for them to choose as needed!
Here are some common favorites:
Wet Wash Cloth
Another trick is to get a wet wash cloth and let your baby gnaw on it. You can even stick it in the freezer before giving it to your baby so the extra cold can soothe their gums all the more.
If your little one will let you, using your fingers to massage their gums and provide that opposite pressure can also be quite soothing and provide some comfort.
**Notice that I’m not recommending medicine. I am not a medical provider, and you should always check with your doctor to see if that is something that would help. I want to make sure babies are not being given medicine regularly (like we did!!) when teething is not actually causing sleep challenges.**
Read more about what the American Academy of Pediatrics says about teething and teething remedies.
How to Approach Bedtime
Just as you always do! Follow your same schedules and same routines as if it’s a normal day. Because there’s a good chance it’s going to be a normal night!
If, however, you think your child is teething and some of the above tricks have been helping during the day, do those in the bedtime routine, as well, to help relieve that pressure.
So let your baby gnaw on a frozen wash cloth while you read stories, or chew on the teether while doing a diaper change.
Just remember, once you lay your baby down, take that item away! There should be nothing in the crib with them until they’re at least 12 months old.
If your child seems to be having an especially challenging time falling asleep, or wakes in the night when that’s not usually the norm, go back to the sleep training method you used in the past and try to be consistent!
Can you sleep train while teething?
Your little one will be teething on and off for quite a while, and there’s just not a way to predict when that’ll actually happen. Like I said before, if it does disrupt sleep, it’s likely only going to be for the day or two the tooth is physically cutting through the gums, and sleep training is generally a two-three week process.
Off nights will come and go, and that’s part of raising real people rather than robots!
In all of this, do not hear me say not to soothe or comfort your child. Absolutely provide comfort and help them relieve that pressure! I’m simply asking you to consider that your child’s sleep will likely not be as affected as you think it might be.
As parents, we’re quick to provide extra comfort and cuddles to our hurting children, and that is a natural and beautiful thing. When it comes to teething and sleep, try not to let teething instill fear of what may come in the night and trust in your child’s ability to sleep.
A few off days may set you back a bit, but don’t think it’s impossible to get that great sleeper back.
If you’re reading this and the concept of having a “great sleeper,” or being confident in your child’s sleep skills seems foreign to you, let’s chat! Because this is all possible, even for you.