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Is my baby hitting her head because she's teething?
Q: My 7-month-old little girl is going through teething, and has started to awaken throughout the night. Previously she has been an excellent sleeper, sleeping on average straight through from 10:00 p.m. – 8:00 a.m.

Twice this week she has woken up from a nap crying. I know this abnormal sleep pattern is most likely due to the teething, but today she also started hitting the right side of her head with her knuckles. Is this normal for teething infants, or is something else wrong? She doesn't do this all day, just sporadically.
A: Julie, it sounds like your baby is having a tough time with teething. Babies usually start cutting their first teeth between 5 and 7 months of age. The typical signs of teething are drooling and chewing on their hands and toys. Also, because of the discomfort of the teeth cutting through the gums, babies may be fussy and have difficulty eating and sleeping.

Since pain in babies’ teeth and gums can also irritate the nerves that run up the sides of the head, it’s not uncommon for teething babies to rub their ears or hit the side of their head, like your baby is doing. On the other hand, those can also be signs of an ear infection, which is common at this age as well. When babies are lying down, the pressure of an ear infection is greatest, so babies with ear infections typically have difficulty sleeping. If your baby continues to hit her head—and particularly if she has other symptoms such as fever, vomiting, or diarrhea—be sure to have her checked by her doctor. Don’t just think, “It’s only teething.” It may be a sign of an illness.

Tips to help relieve your baby’s discomfort with teething:
  • Let your baby chew on things. This can help relieve discomfort and help the teeth erupt through the gums. It’s okay for her to chew on her own hands, as long as you wash her hands frequently. You can also rub her gums with your finger, if you wash your hands well, or with a clean damp washcloth cooled in the freezer for about 30 minutes. Pacifiers and teething toys are good—for safety, be sure they are one-piece to prevent choking on detachable parts; and don’t tie them around her neck because your baby could strangle herself. Some babies prefer the pacifier or teething toy cooled in the refrigerator.

    Once her teeth have erupted, don’t use the fluid-filled teething rings because the teeth can puncture them and the liquid may not be safe. You can also give your baby hard food to chew on, such as teething biscuits or frozen bagel wedges—just watch her very closely to make sure she doesn’t choke on any pieces that may break off.
  • Consider medication if your baby is still uncomfortable with the teething. You can use an over-the-counter teething gel which numbs her gums when you rub it on. Pain medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may also be helpful—consult your pediatrician about the right dose. Don’t give your baby aspirin because it can cause Reye Syndrome and brain damage.

Remember, your baby will probably get over her teething discomfort within a week or two. With your help, she’ll also get back to her regular sleeping schedule. But there’s more teething to come—be prepared for her to cut her first four top teeth within the next two months.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician