Photo by: iStock

Is Baby Mouthing a Sign of Teething?

Photo by: iStock

Recently I caught up with a group of parents. A few commented that they think their babies are teething because babies are putting everything into their mouths. Knowing my background in children’s dentistry, one couple asked if I thought their three-month-old was really teething….

Contrary to traditional belief, mouthing is not an exclusive sign of teething.

Mouthing is a normal part of early infant behavior and an important part of development. Mouthing and sucking can be related to nutrition such as breastfeeding or bottle feeding (i.e. nutritive sucking), or non-nutritive such as pacifiers, fingers, thumbs, objects and clothing etc. More specifically, mouthing refers to babies putting objects including toys, non-toy objects and items of clothing, into their mouths whereas non-nutritive sucking generally refers to pacifiers, fingers and thumbs.

Before babies can use their hands and fingers to properly grasp and explore objects, babies learn about the world around them by mouthing. Babies most frequently start reaching for things and bring them to mouth, at around three months of age. Younger than three months of age, babies often fail to hold the objects of interest for long enough to bring them to mouth. By around nine months of age, babies begin to be able to pick up objects with their thumb and index finger.

Younger babies tend to spend more time exploring with their mouth. As babies grow and develop, becoming more mobile and more able to use their hands and feet to explore their world, the time spent on mouthing seems to reduce. Mouthing has been reported to peak between the ages of three to nine months, which aligns with the timing of the first tooth emergence, which usually occurs at approximately seven months of age.

Rest assured, mouthing is not a bad thing. Mouthing is not something we, doting parents, need to deter. Mouthing is part of childhood, a growing phase.

To ensure our precious little ones pass through this growing phase of mouthing, without drama or mishaps, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Choking Risks

There is a plethora of baby products designed and marketed for mouthing e.g. teethers, teething chews and rusks, baby toys, pacifiers. Generally, these specifically designed mouthing toys go through a process of quality checks to assure parents, they are age-specific or safe for all ages. However, all parents discover sooner or later, babies have minds of their own. Babies are particularly good at getting their hands on anything and everything not intended for babies; especially parts off older siblings’ toys e.g. puzzle pieces, balloons, building blocks, non-toy objects e.g. coins, pen lids, and clothing items e.g. buttons, necklaces, beads.

Choking risks are particularly great from conforming objects e.g. uninflated balloons and balloon pieces, which can get stuck to a child’s airway and form an airtight seal over the airway. Objects that are small, round or cylindrical in shape, or with moving or separable small parts, pose considerable choking risks. According to the United States Consumer Safety Commission, if a toy can fit into a cylinder of 3.2cm diameter x 5.7mm height (perhaps, imagine and compare with the cylinder of a toilet paper roll which measures approximately 3-4mm diameter x 10mm height), then the toy poses choking risks for children under three years.

Most countries have their own standards and guidelines for toys. For example, in Australia, you can refer to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Product Safety Australia and the Australian Toy Association. For international standards, there is also the International Council of Toy Industries.

As parents, it is wise to be conscious of choking risks when babies start mouthing everything and anything.

Toxic Risks

Safety standards for toys address toxicity risks and impose exclusions on constituents deemed toxic or hazardous. However, advances in technology also means new materials are being developed all the time and incorporated into products. Toxicities from new materials may remain unknown for a long time to come. Toxicity may also result from the manufacturing process and not just the product constituents. Therefore, absolute 100% risk free, is very hard to come by.

For example, phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), both found in many products in everyday life, have received a lot of attention in the recent past, due to concerns regarding potential health risks. Studies and reviews results have been conflicting. Scientific evidence suggests that the risks to humans are inconclusive.

As parents, wanting the best for our children is innate and this may include exercising precautions when selecting toys and other products used for baby, amidst controversies. For some parents, making their own, may alleviate some concerns.

Infection Risks

Mouthing phase of development is usually accompanied by the “oopsie daisies” (frequent dropping of things) and “let’s test my boundaries and see how many times my adult will pick this up for me” phases. While a bit of dirt and dust are unlikely to cause health concerns, mouthing toys may lead to infections, if these toys come in contact with pathogens contaminated surfaces or saliva.

Some ways of minimizing infection risks from toys include: avoid sharing toys, cleaning toys before use and when toys get dropped, replace contaminated toy with a clean toy and replace soft toys more frequently (since soft toys are more difficult to clean and decontaminate than hard toys).

Malocclusion Risks

Young babies may seem like they mouth all day long but actually, mouthing durations are usually less than one to two hours per day, with the exception of pacifiers, thumb or fingers non-nutritive sucking. Short durations of mouthing does not pose any malocclusion risks. In addition, mouthing duration generally decreases with age. This is in contrast to persistent and prolonged non-nutritive sucking of pacifiers, fingers or thumbs, which can increase risks of malocclusion.

So that’s mouthing “in a nutshell.” As parents, it is good to know, mouthing is part of baby’s development and often peaks around the time of the first tooth cutting. What a relief it is that we don’t need to come up with some game plan to stop baby mouthing. We just have to help baby explore their world safely.

Annetta Tsang is a mom and pediatric dentist with great passion for the prevention of oral diseases in very young children and special needs children. She started Tooth Bunny to share practical and evidence-based information about children’s oral health with the aim of supporting families to achieve best oral care at home.

Like This Article

Like Mamapedia

Learn From Moms Like You

Get answers, tips, deals, and amazing advice from other Moms.

For Updates and Special Promotions
Follow Us
Want to become a contributor?
Want to become a contributor?

If you'd like to contribute to the Wisdom of Moms on Mamapedia, please sign up here to learn more: Sign Up

Recent Voices Posts

See all