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Aside from the whole "getting your baby to actually sleep through the night" situation, teething probably ranks right toward the top on the list of parents' least favorite parts about babyhood. In addition to the general grump factor that settles upon teething babes, there seems to be a large slew of other teething symptoms, including drooling, diaper rash, diarrhea, low-grade fevers, sleeplessness and lack of appetite.
I can attest to this. My daughter had so many of these symptoms during her babyhood. I remember seeing all the signs and just knowing she was going to wake up with a new tooth. Except she didn't. In fact, my daughter had exactly zero teeth until she was 10 months old and after that she had only four until nearly 18 months. I started to give up on all of these so-called teething symptoms, because they never really seemed to pan out and apparently I may have been on the right track.
According to a Slate article, teething may not really be as bad as we parents think. Researchers have found "that no symptom reliably predicts the eruption of a tooth because babies react differently. The one fact experts seem to agree on—but that many parents, including myself, are reluctant to accept—is that true teething symptoms are generally pretty mild."
Could it really be true?
As exhausted, sleep-deprived parents we are desperate for an answer for our babies' behavioral changes. A grumpy babe who suddenly stops sleeping through the night? "Oh! I bet he's teething!" A snotty nose for days? "Oh! I bet he's teething!" A suddenly picky at mealtime 10-month-old? "Oh! I bet he's teething!"
As parents, it is far more likely that the symptoms we associate with teething are more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But study after study shows that while there may be some degree of discomfort associated with teething, "a significant amount of pain is not likely or plausible." The research also shows that "so-called teething symptoms frequently occurred in non-teething infants, too—it's just that they were more likely to happen when the infants were teething. They also found that no specific symptom occurred in more than 35 percent of teething infants. In other words, non-teething kids often seem like they're teething, and teething kids don't all have the same symptoms."
You can check out all the science-based explanations in the Slate article, but the basic gist is that as parents it is far more likely that the symptoms we associate with teething are more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect teething to have all of these symptoms and so when teeth happen to show up concurrent with these symptoms, we assume it is related, when in actuality babies just go through things like this sometimes. Fussiness, sleep regressions, diaper rashes and the like are kind of just par for the course when it comes to babies. As much as I'd enjoy having a concrete excuse for my baby when he's wailing in the middle of the grocery store, it's actually a bit of a relief to know that it's probably not always teething so I can start looking for other solutions.
The reality of that teething excuse being a bit flimsy is rough to face, but I guess I can take solace in the fact that I'm not in this alone. Babies are confusing, and teeth or not, we'll all eventually get through it. Good luck as those teeth come in (or don't), fellow parents!