When teething is a tyranny – and what you can do about it

When teething is a tyranny – and what you can do about it

There is a view that we blame everything on teething.  When a baby or toddler is grouchy, not sleeping or not eating, it is all too easy to say ‘ah, she must be teething’.  But whilst there are, of course, other reasons for our little ones to be unhappy or lose their appetite, the reality is that teething can be a really disruptive process.  Chinese medicine can explain perfectly why this is, and give us some clues as to what to do about it. 

Firstly, the process by which a tooth works its way up through the gum requires a surge of yang qi (heat) in the body.  This is the equivalent to athletes needing to warm up before a race.  In order to run their fastest, their body needs to be warm beforehand.  In order for a tooth to emerge, a baby must produce some extra heat to provide the motive force for the process.  This heat is necessary.  However, it can also explain many of the common ‘symptoms’ of teething, such as:

  • Red cheeks
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Raised temperature
  • Smelly stools

In children who are already a bit too hot, the teething process tends to cause quite a lot of disruption.  But for children who are energetically damp or cold, the extra heat in the body can actually be useful.  It can enable the body to ‘throw off’ damp that has been lingering.  This explains another common teething ‘symptom’ which is:

  • Snotty nose

Secondly, the acupuncture meridians (channels) of the Stomach and the Large Intestine both run through the gums.  When a new tooth is emerging, the qi in these channels temporarily becomes disrupted and blocked.  It can no longer flow smoothly.  This explains some other common ‘symptoms’ of teething, such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loose stools

So, is there anything to be done to help make this transition an easier one?  The answer, thankfully, is a definite yes!  Here are the most common pieces of advice I give to parents whose children are having a difficult time with teething:

  • Trust your child’s instinct to lessen their food or milk intake during this time.  It will help to relieve the stagnation in their digestive system, which comes from the tooth cutting through one of the key digestive meridians.  Babies and children of this age have an innate instinct for survival.  They will make up for it once the tooth has come through!
  • Foods should be kept simple and light.  This means avoiding red meat and spicy foods, and keeping cheese and sugary products to a minimum.  
  • Make sure the baby or child has good breaks (ideally a minimum of 2 hours) between meals or feeds, so they have time to digest one before taking in the next.
  • Massage the acupuncture point LI 4 hegu on the hand.  It really helps to ease the pain of teething.
Acupuncture point LI 4 hegu
  • If your child has red cheeks, feels hotter than normal to touch and is generally restless and irritable, massage this acupuncture point (known as Kidney 1 yongquan) at the bottom of the foot.  It will help to draw the heat down from the top of the body.
Acupuncture point Ki 1 yongquan
  • Whilst hot, restless children may need opportunities to run around outside, most children also need more rest when they are teething.  In Chinese medicine, teething is seen as an outward manifestation of a strong developmental phase.  This means  children need to conserve their energy rather than expend it on too many external activities. 

Teething may be an unpleasant experience (although, thankfully, one that we don’t remember!) but it certainly does not need to be a tyranny.  Having an understanding of the process, and following the simple guidelines above, can enable parents to nurture their children through this developmental stage.  We can’t take away the pain, but we can ease it and, most importantly, be alongside our children through it.  

Rebecca Avern

I have been practising acupuncture for 15 years. As well as practising in Oxford, I am both a senior lecturer and clinical supervisor at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (www.cicm.org.uk) which is the biggest acupuncture training centre in Europe. I have treated both adults and children and whilst the benefits of acupuncture for adults are well-known and well-documented, fewer people are aware of how it can benefit children. I decided that I wanted more children to experience the benefits of acupuncture, and so decided to set up The Panda Clinic. I have to admit to having another motivation - I love being around children and derive great satisfaction when I see children recover from ill health. I am mother to 2 primary school age children. As well as being an experienced acupuncturist, as a parent I have a good understanding of the stress and anxiety that an ill child can induce. I will always do my best to communicate with the parent(s) of a child I am treating as thoroughly and clearly as I can.