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Teething Time!

When he was 6 months old, my first child, Sam, began to drool. He drooled and drooled and drooled -- a veritable Niagara of saliva. As new parents, my husband, Haywood, and I had no idea what was going on but decided it must be okay because Sam looked perfectly happy. In fact, it was when he laughed out loud one day that we figured it out: Shimmering among the spit bubbles was the pearly white tip of his very first tooth.

"Well, that was easy," Haywood said. "Why does everybody make such a big deal about teething?"

Five years later, we found out. Henry, our second son, reached the ripe old age of 11 months without his mouth becoming any damper than usual. Then, suddenly, he started pulling at his ears and crying inconsolably for no apparent reason. The only thing that calmed him was ibuprofen and hours spent in my arms. I took him to the pediatrician three times in ten days, sure he had an ear infection. In each case we were informed that his ears were clear.

"He's teething," the doctor decided at our third visit, pointing out poor Henry's red, swollen gums. "And he's having a really hard time of it because several teeth are moving at once."

Sure enough, a couple of mornings later, Henry smiled for the first time in days and revealed not one but four perfect little teeth. What had taken Sam five months to accomplish with no apparent distress, Henry had suffered over two grueling weeks.

Margaret Renkl is a Parenting contributing editor.

In Their Own Good Time

When it comes to sprouting teeth, every baby is on his own timetable. The age at which teething begins differs from kid to kid, and how babies experience the process can vary widely. Some have symptoms weeks before a tooth actually emerges, while others show no sign at all; a tooth just seems to appear out of nowhere. There are babies who go through days of sore, swollen gums and then the swelling recedes -- with no tooth to show for the trouble.

With so many variations, not to mention the fact that babies can't actually say what's troubling them or even point to where it hurts, it can be hard for parents to tell when their little one's teething. Here's what to look for:

A need to gnaw. The pressure of an emerging tooth beneath the gums may be relieved by counterpressure, so teething babies often want to chomp on things. It's also possible that the chewing instinct is a response to the odd sensation that something's going on in there: "It may itch or just feel funny to a baby, causing him to 'worry' it with chewing," says Paul Casamassimo, a pediatric dentist at Ohio State University Children's Hospital, in Columbus.

Susan Kane of Chappaqua, New York, mom of Nick, 9, and Darcy, 6 months, can attest to that. Darcy is working on her first tooth and will sink her gums into anything she can get her mouth on -- including Mom's hand. "And it hurts! I can tell she's got her eye on my briefcase too," she says. But since letting her baby chew on that is out of the question, Kane's found that a terry-cloth doll usually staves off Darcy's leather lust.

Puffy gums. Before a new tooth erupts, it can cause a red, swollen, bruised-looking area on the baby's gums. Sometimes the gum actually bulges with the emerging tooth, which you can see faintly beneath the skin if you can convince your baby to open his mouth for long enough.

Fussiness, especially at night. The discomfort associated with teething often increases as the tooth moves through the bone and gum. Since tooth eruption tends to come in stages, with more activity at night than during the day, a baby may be more irritable then.

Ear pulling. While it's also the sign of an ear infection, tugging can be a symptom of teething: The pain from the jaw gets transferred to the ear canal.

Stepped-up drooling. As with Sam, increased spittle can herald a new tooth -- but it's also a normal developmental stage of infancy, so don't assume that a drooling newborn is teething, says Andrea McCoy, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Temple University. When an older baby's teething, saliva can be heavy enough to cause a rash on the chin, chest, or neck (which happens when tender baby skin is in frequent contact with drool-soaked clothing or bedding) or gagging (from saliva dripping down the back of the throat). A bib or layer of petroleum jelly can help keep skin dry.

A change in appetite. Babies who are eating solids may want to nurse or bottle-feed more because a spoon irritates their inflamed gums. Others may do the opposite, eating more than usual because the counterpressure feels good. And babies who are still on the bottle or breast may begin feeding eagerly but pull back because the activity of sucking puts uncomfortable pressure on the gums and ear canals.

Soothing Soreness

Whatever symptoms your baby suffers as her teeth come in, some ways to help her through:

Distraction. "Teething pain is like headache pain -- it causes chronic, low-grade discomfort," says Casamassimo. So while an achy baby may be irritable, you can often soothe her by doubling up on one-on-one time or offering her a toy she's never seen before. Kristine Chamberlain of Belmont, Massachusetts, plays music for her 18-month-old daughter to dance to. And don't underestimate the healing power of touch: A little extra cuddling on the sofa may be all that's needed to take a child's mind off the turmoil in her mouth.

Massage. If the tooth is still deep in the gum and hasn't formed a painful bruise, counterpressure or friction where it's about to erupt can work wonders. "My daughter, Eliza, loved to mouth the rail of her crib, so to protect her teeth and the crib, I covered the rail with soft plastic strips she could chomp on to her heart's content," says Parenting staffer Maura Rhodes. If your baby's gums seem too tender for such measures, try massaging them with your clean finger (bare or wrapped in a washcloth).

Chill the pain. "Both our kids were soothed by 'fake Popsicles.' We'd keep them in the refrigerator and pull them out whenever someone was hurting," says Tia Scott of Brentwood, Tennessee, mom of Lara, 8, and Kira, 2. Heather Hill, mom of 3-year-old Sean, found a special pacifier with bumps on it. "I bought several of them and kept them in the fridge," says the Jackson, Michigan, mom.

Since nothing will stay cool for long in a baby's warm little mouth, you may be tempted to put teething rings in the freezer. But don't, since infant skin is very sensitive, says Dr. McCoy. A teether that's frozen solid could actually do more harm than good to a baby's tender gums when she chomps down on it. Medicate when necessary. Some parents swear by over-the-counter local anesthetics (like Anbesol or Orajel). Be sure to follow directions: They can make a baby sick if overused (more than four doses a day or for more than two weeks). If your baby's too uncomfortable to sleep, acetaminophen may help. Be judicious, though: Reserve the drops for nap- or nighttime, and rely on other methods when the baby's awake.

Teething may be heralded by tears, but with a little help, your baby will have a lifetime of happy smiles.