November 14, 2018 3 min read

There is an old wives tale about rubbing whiskey on the gums of teething babies to help soothe the discomfort. Depending on when you were born, your grandmother may have even done this to you when your mother wasn't looking. The idea is that the whiskey will help to numb the gums of the child and make them stop crying. A sea of anecdotal evidence insists that this method works.

Numbing - A Common Misconception

There are a few reasons why people may be reporting these effects but first, we need to look at a common misconception. There is a widespread belief that alcohol is a topical numbing agent. Topically applied alcohol can create a number of different sensations. It can make your skin feel cold because it evaporates so quickly. It can hurt like the dickens when poured on a wound because it lowers the sensitivity of your V1 receptors, prompting them to tell the brain that you're burning when in reality you're just fine, and because alcohol is a vasodilator, it can make the inside of your tummy feel physically warm. But what alcohol does NOT do, is numb the skin. This is likely a misconception born from observing that skin is rubbed with alcohol for sanitization purposes before administering a shot, a piercing, or anything else that would open the skin to possible infection.      

What is Really Happening?  

So if alcohol doesn't topically numb, then why would it make baby calm down? There are two possible explanations, and both involve that fact that Baby is at least slightly inebriated. "But wait!" you may say, "Grandma didn't put a whiskey sour in baby's bottle, she just dipped her finger into her glass and rubbed that whiskey moistened finger on baby's gums! Baby couldn't really be intoxicated just from that right?" Wrong!  

Alcohol can actually absorb into the bloodstream very quickly through the mouth. Both directly through the skin and also through inhalation of the resulting alcoholic vapors. And remember, a baby's tiny little body doesn't yet have the defense mechanisms of a full grown adult body. Even the tiniest amount of alcohol is enough to inebriate a small baby. And as we know, being inebriated makes us feel a little differently about things.

For one thing, being intoxicated makes you chill out about things that seemed very stressful before. Like sharp new teeth forcing their way through the solid flesh of your gums. Secondly, alcohol in your bloodstream slows down our brain's pain receptors, so it's likely that what was a painful teething experience pre-whiskey, is suddenly feeling a lot more manageable.

 

So it Probably Works? Awesome, I'll Go Get the Bottle!"

Not unless you want to risk the safety and development of your precious child. In fact not only should this idea be disregarded but it needs to be treated as a dangerous piece of advice. Alcohol, even a few drops, can be very dangerous for an infant. In some cases, it may even be fatal. 

There are much better ways of getting your child through the pain of teething. The most natural way is to allow your child to suck on something that has been chilled in the fridge or freezer. You don't want to give your child something completely frozen as that would damage their tongue and lips but something that is cold will do wonders to numb the child's gums while the teeth breakthrough.  If you don't mind using manufactured products there are several over the counter numbing agents that do a wonderful job. There are also a number of home remedies that can be found on the Internet.

 The take-home point here is that if your child is teething, screaming, and inconsolable, 1.) do NOT let your grandmother babysit and  2.) save the drop o' whiskey to calm and soothe your own grown-up nerves while you give baby something safe and age-appropriate.