Why Teethers Are For More Than Just Teething
Parents often go to the store in a rush to buy a teether once their baby starts showing some of the signs of teething: drooooooling, disrupted sleep patterns, decreased appetite and/or increased nursing, diaper rash/diarrhea, grabbing ears, red cheeks and the most obvious sign of red, swollen, possibly bleeding gums.
But, did you know that there is more to teething than just getting those baby teeth out?
And, did you know that there is good reason to get developmentally appropriate teethers before the baby starts teething?
During my 18 years as a pediatric physical therapist and 13 years as a mother of three, I have learned a lot about infant development and why babies feel so compelled to put a teether (or anything else) in their mouth. Here is information that I hope makes you feel proud of your kiddo when they put anything smack dab in those chompers.
How do infants gain the ability to place a teether in their mouths?
A newborn baby has a rooting reflex whereby a stroked cheek will cause the baby to turn his or her head with an open mouth looking to feed. If not feeding, this sometimes leads to early chewing experiences as the baby may gnaw on those little hands, if that is what is closest to the baby’s mouth. After about two months old, this rooting reflex will decrease making way for more advanced mouthing skills.
By four months old you will notice your baby staring at his or her hands. The baby is learning that he or she actually has hands, which is the first step to using them. At this stage the baby will also reflexively hold onto an appropriately sized object that is placed in his or her hand and may bring that object to mouth. This is fantastic! This is development in action and a gateway to learning, exploration and self-feeding!
Please note that babies cannot progress in this development while their hands are covered in mitts. I recommend keeping their hands out and ready to learn! Any baby scratches that occur will heal very quickly.
Soon your babies will fully understand that they have hands and will be able to reach out and grab anything that is interesting. And, guess what they will do with it? Put it in their mouth!
Why do babies put things in their mouth?
At birth, the sensory system around the mouth including the lips, tongue and taste buds is one of the most developed areas of a baby’s body. This helps babies survive as they come out ready to feed. Their vision is far less developed at birth so they will need to use their best sense available in order to explore a toy or anything else that seems interesting. Hence they put everything in their mouth because they are desperate to learn more about their environment. Who are we to stop them?!
What other benefits to mouthing objects are there?
- Feeding & Vocalization. Mouthing objects also strengthens the mouth and jaw for chewing and babbling in the future. Kinda important, eh?!
- Hand to Mouth Coordination. Babies are gaining awareness about their hands as they gnaw on them as well as learning how to control their arms and hands as they bring a teether to their mouth. Initially, they will clunk themselves in the face and miss their mouth, but they will soon get more accurate and careful.
- Soothing. Mouthing objects can soothe an upset baby, especially if it is teething causing the baby distress. Instead of always reaching for a pacifier to calm your baby, try a teether. Sucking and chewing serve different developmental functions, and a baby can benefit from both experiences.
“My baby loves her pacifier! Does this count as a teether?” I’m afraid it doesn’t. Here are some of the differences:
- Close the baby’s mouth, which doesn’t allow for sound production, vocal interaction or mouth breathing.
- Because of the size and shape of the pacifier, the baby is typically unable to work on the grasp and hand to mouth skills.
- Tongue stays at midline, which is very different from the tongue movement needed to vocalize, bite and move food inside mouth.
- May dent the baby’s palate on the roof of mouth and block the teeth and jaw from achieving proper alignment.
- Encourage up and down jaw movement with an open mouth, which is helpful for the development of biting, chewing, vocalization and open mouth breathing.
- Babies will be in control of and interested in bringing the teether in and out of their mouth to explore it with touch, taste and vision.
- Tongue moves from side to side to explore the object, which is necessary for moving food inside mouth in the future as well as vocalization.
- Teether does not touch the hard palate and therefore cannot negatively effect its growth and formation.
The next time your baby puts something in the mouth, I hope that you are proud of how far your little one has come along and how important it is for littles to explore in this way. Keep your eye out for an upcoming blog with my developmentally-based recommendations for teethers that I have seen babies enjoy the best while gaining the most developmental benefits!