Does teething really affect sleep?

Does teething really affect sleep?

Teething is often the go to reason for why a baby doesn’t sleep well; in fact it can get the blame for a lot of things.  If your child is fussier than usual or has a runny nose, he could be teething.  She has nappy rash; could be teething. She’s red in the face and has a light fever; possibly teething. Drooling and chewing on everything, you guessed it, teething. Teething gets the blame for just about everything –  so here are some tips for dealing with “teething” and my take on whether it really affects your baby’s sleep.

Pain and discomfort can cause wake-ups

I believe the effect of teething really is child dependant – some children breeze through teething with no problems at all and others struggle through it. How parents view it really depends on their child. Of course pain and discomfort can cause wake-ups and it would be silly to think otherwise. But you have to realize that from around 6 months, when it often starts, teething is going to come and go (and come and go and then do it all again) for the first 2-3 years of your child’s life.  That’s a long time to wait for your child’s sleep to improve so you can both sleep well.

Yes, it certainly is possible that teething disrupts sleep for some children, BUT teething often gets the blame for bad sleep skills. So how can you tell the difference between the two?

The best indicator for teething

The BEST indicator for whether your baby is really teething – is to look and see it. Your first indicator may be that she’s fussier or grumpier than normal during the day, and when you look in her mouth you see a wee bump under the gum that might look a little red – that’s your BEST bet there’s a tooth coming through.

Now what about drooling? Parents often consider drooling the first sign of teething – it sure can be, but some babies just naturally drool A LOT (my son needed a cloth bandana over his clothes for a good year after the 6-month mark, and his teeth certainly weren’t popping up every week). Drooling, combined with a poor latch (and potentially wind) can also be an indication of mouth breathing and other issues, but that’s a whole other story.

What about those other symptoms? When your baby wants to chew on things could it be teething? The answer is yes, however babies put a lot of things in their mouths, it’s how they learn and discover the world (and yes, they do this when they’re teething too). That’s really just being a baby.

And sure, you will get differing opinions on the rest of the symptoms. Even doctors disagree about what happens during teething. The runny nose could be a cold, the diarrhea or nappy rash could be due to new foods. It is a hard call to make.

So it IS teething – now what?

You’ve seen the bump under the gum and your baby’s in a fussy mood.

Rest assured that the only real discomfort caused by teething occurs 3-4 days prior to tooth cutting the gum – the gums swell and that can cause some minor discomfort and pain.

It isn’t THAT bad – so the best thing to do is try and relax about it. Your child is going to pick up on it if you’re anxious. You don’t have to feel sorry for them, and while you should give them a little more care and love for a few days, try not to change your habits too much. That’s really the crux of it. If you already have a good sleeper, teething certainly doesn’t require them to have extra feeds or suddenly come into mum and dad’s bed (don’t get me wrong, I know these things are comforting for both parties). But a big change in how you react is likely to start some NEW habits (or remind her of old ones), ones that your child may not want to give up when they are no longer in pain. And then you’ll have sleep issues that are unrelated to teething. Give them more comfort, but don’t do too much extra.

So what can I do to help the pain?

If you really think it is teething (you can see the bump), you can modify your night time response. Don’t wait when your child wakes and calls for you, go and see her and give her cuddles if she needs them, but also consider something to help ease the pain.

Yes, if you have seen that tooth and your child is not his usual cheery self, I am going to suggest you use pain relief. Give him medication like Paracetamol (Pamol) or Ibuprofen (Neurofen) at bedtime according to the directions. If he sleeps for six hours before waking and crying, then you can safely assume that the pain medication has worn off and pain was the issue. Another dose will see him through the night.

Now I am NOT suggesting you dose your child with medication for weeks. Teething pain only lasts a few days. I also only recommend medicating at night. During the day you can use other remedies like teething rings, teething powder or a cold wet flannel from the freezer, and of course lots of cuddles. Daytime activities help distract from the discomfort of sore teeth, so it is easier to get through a day without medication than it is a night. No one should be expected to sleep through pain at night.

The good news is that if you have a child who is sleeping well they will handle the pain so much better than if they’re not sleeping well. Being tired magnifies pain.

Tolerance to pain is that much lower when you’re tired and that is why children who are good sleepers seem to breeze through teething much more easily than children who don’t!

And if it is teething and you remain pretty consistent in how you deal with night wakes, your child will be back on track and sleeping through again in a few days.

I’m still not sure it’s teeth now what?

So, you didn’t see the tooth, and maybe you even gave them some Pamol, but your child is still waking multiple times a night. Now what?

The big question you need to ask yourself is does your child fall asleep independently? That means that they can fall asleep without the need for you to feed them or rock them to sleep for example.

If the answer is yes, then congratulations, that’s the foundation of good sleep – chances are they DO sleep well. And if your child has a bad night – then yes, it could be teething pain. It’s a lot easier to know when something is up when they usually sleep through the night.

If the answer is no, they don’t fall asleep independently, then that is likely your issue– working on your child’s sleep skills would be a great start, and then you can assess how they react to teething.


And don’t forget that when teeth show up we need to encourage brushing. Kids don’t like to brush their teeth for a whole load of reasons, and it can be a bit of a battle. So to encourage co-operation: give one toothbrush to your baby, and you keep one. If she puts it in her mouth and she chews on it, praise her and use her hand to move it around a little, then you have a go. Share the responsibility with her. This is a great way for her to get use to the concept (although you will need to be in control of the brush for a long time yet).


But really, teething is something that has to happen. Every child goes through it and you have to live through it. So the more you can put it out of your mind, the better off you will all be, and the less likely you’ll be to over-react to it.

And if you’d like some help with independent sleep skills please book in a free initial call or sign up to my newsletter so you can be kept up to date with the latest blogs, research and tips.

Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep!

Do you have an opinion on teething? Have you had a “bad” teether that turned the corner after they gained better sleep skills? I’d love to hear your comments.