Let’s talk about your teething baby and their sleep. Teeth get a TON of credit for wrecking havoc on a baby or toddler’s sleep. If I had a dime for every time I heard a parent say something along the lines of “my baby’s sleep has been off for weeks, it MUST be because he’s teething”, I’d be a very wealthy lady. But here’s the truth. I need to come out and say it and not beat around the bush. You ready?
Teeth are not the reason why your little one isn’t sleeping through the night.
Alright, I’ll try not to be too dramatic next time. But WHOA does it feel good to get that off my chest 🙂
Now, if you’ve been blaming teeth on your baby’s current sleep woes, you’re not alone. LOTS of parents are quick to blame those pearly whites every time their little one’s sleep goes sideways. The truth of the matter, though, is that these claims don’t hold much weight.
What the research actually says about teething babies and sleep
You might be reading this article thinking “this crazy lady has no idea what she’s talking about”. The good news is that you don’t have take my word for it. Instead, I can simply quote the American Academy of Pediatrics and the study they published on the effects of teething.
In this study, they enrolled 31 babies in the 6-36 month age range. There were pediatric dentists visiting the homes of these babies regularly and did the following: 1) They thoroughly inspected the baby’s mouth to see if any teeth are emerging; and 2) they asked the caregiver if they believed the baby was cutting any teeth.
You know how this all played out? You guessed it. The caregiver told the dentist that she’s CONVINCED their baby must be cutting teeth because of all the symptoms she saw.
And the dentist would think to themselves “Uh- there’s no teeth here!”
Because check out the conclusion of the study:
“This study did not confirm the expected strong association between tooth eruption and a range of teething symptoms in children 6-30 months old, although we cannot rule out the possibility that weak associations may exist. These findings contrast with strong parent and professional beliefs to the contrary.”
In case you’re not convinced, there’s actually a second, much larger study that backs up these conclusions. This study followed 125 infants for 10 months and found no significant difference in sleep patterns between the infants who were teething and the infants who were not.
Clearly, a teething baby CAN sleep like a champ despite any mild symptoms he might experience.
The mild symptoms that teething DOES cause
Now look, I’ve got 3 kids. I’m not ignorant enough to say that teething doesn’t cause ANY symptoms. It’s very probable that when your baby or toddler is cutting a new tooth or those first molars that they’ll experience mild symptoms and be uncomfortable and fussy. In fact, these same studies concluded that clear signs of teething include fussiness, irritability, biting, drooling, ear rubbing, facial rash, decreased appetite for solids, and a mild temperature.
In fact, I distinctly remember when JJ was 14 months and he was cutting 6 molars at one time. Yes- 6. And let me tell you, he was NOT a happy camper (and neither was I). He was miserable for a good chunk of the day and needed extra comfort. However, because JJ was a SOLID sleeper on a good day, those 6 molars didn’t impact his sleep whatsoever.
You read that correctly. JJ consistently slept through the night while he was cutting 6 molars at once. No middle of the night wakings!
But here’s the important point- a baby’s tooth takes 1-2 days to erupt. It DOES NOT take weeks for a new tooth to cut through. These mild teething symptoms TRULY don’t last longer than that! By the next day, most of JJ’s first molars had cut through and life was back to normal.
“But Eva- my baby DOES sleep worse when I can feel a tooth cutting through!”
So look, if you’re constantly dealing with sleep challenges like difficulty getting your little one to sleep, multiple nightwakings, early rising, or short naps, this has NOTHING to do with teething and everything to do with your little one’s sleep habits and sleep hygiene.
But I also believe you! I’m SURE your little one’s sleep is worse when he’s cutting a tooth. But ask yourself this : “What was my little one’s sleep like BEFORE he was teething?” If the answer is anything from “mediocre” to “REALLY not great” (or worse), keep reading.
See, when you have a baby who isn’t the best sleeper to begin with, teething will likely make a not-so-great sleep situation MUCH worse. Without solid sleep hygiene and independent sleep skills, all bets are off in terms of what your little one’s night is going to look like on a good day. When you throw slight discomfort from teething into the mix, it can lead to extra night wakings and even cause your little one’s sleep to fall apart.
Remember, your little one’s sleep patterns weren’t great to begin with. This means that your little one is going to have a much harder time “weathering this storm” and staying asleep when he’s ALSO feeling uncomfortable from his sore gums.
Here’s an analogy for you
Let’s say you’ve got two people who know how to swim. One is a professional swimmer who’s been swimming his whole life. And one learned how to swim a week ago and can barely keep his head above water in a heated swimming pool.
Suddenly, these two swimmers find themselves in an ocean with a huge waves coming right at them. Which of these swimmers is going to fare better with this challenge? The strong, professional swimmer will be fine (at least temporarily). The not-so-great swimmer is naturally going to struggle.
Your little one’s sleep is no different since sleeping well is also a skill, just like swimming. This is why good sleepers tend to be good teethers. When you’ve got a baby with strong sleep skills and solid sleep habits, the effect that teething has on your little one’s sleep is minimal. His sleep shouldn’t go down the toilet every time new teeth erupts if he’s a solid sleeper. Your teething baby can STILL sleep like a champ.
What to do when your baby is cutting a tooth
Firstly, when your baby or toddler is cutting a tooth and isn’t happy about it, feel free to offer him any of the following natural remedies:
– a pain reliever such as infant ibuprofen;
– cold foods to munch on, such as cucumber (feels great on baby’s gums);
– cold teething rings or other rubber teethers;
– a frozen washcloth (they love chomping on those!)
– a pacifier
– lots and lots of cuddles (can’t get enough of them)
Second, do your absolute best to keep your little one on the same sleep routine. If your sleep trained baby starts to cut a tooth, it’s not a reason to introduce sleep associations and begin helping him fall asleep. The slight discomfort your little one might be experiencing isn’t reason to undo any sleep training and potentially cause more sleep disruptions.
If you were planning to sleep train your little one and you’re feeling hesitant because a tooth is cutting through, simply hold off for 24-48 hours until you feel the tooth pop through. Then begin!
My advice if you’re not getting much sleep- and teething is making sleep worse
If you are finding that your baby’s sleep is impacted by teething and that your little one is simply not a great sleeper to begin with, my STRONG advice is to teach your little one how to sleep like a champ. Introducing solid sleep habits means that when your little one starts to cut a tooth (or gets sick, switches daycare, goes on vacation, or gets any other “sleep stealer” thrown at him), he will be able to weather that storm WAY more easily.
I want to assure you that your baby’s teeth never need to get in the way of them sleeping well. This is good news! Otherwise, you’d NEVER be able to sleep through the night until your little one is 3. And that would suck.
If you need some expert advice to help you come up with a customized sleep plan for your little one and support you along the way, check out my online coaching program, the Sleep Bible. There’s no better time like the present to fix your little one’s sleep challenges and get some normalcy back in your life so that you can finally feel like a well-rested, functioning human.
Your teething baby CAN sleep! Your baby’s teeth are not a trump card, preventing that much-needed sleep from happening. Promise!