Teething and its Bizarre History

We are teething at the moment. I use the royal ‘we’ advisedly because, although the actual teeth are physically located in 14 month-old Elsa’s mouth, the repercussions spread much further. She does not sleep well when teething and who can blame her? We do not sleep well when she’s teething and who can blame us?

But it will pass. Some of her current teeth have popped up with little fuss, some took months and made life difficult but the current crop will arrive in time and everything will be okay. It’s tough to see her in pain but we do what we can and we know that it happens and it has to happen, otherwise toffee is going to prove a problem in the future.

That may seem obvious, but until the late 19th century teething was deemed to be dangerous and even a cause of death for infants. Physicians sought ways to eradicate it. Seriously. It happens that this week I was listening to an old episode of the excellent Sawbones podcast, a weekly trawl through medical history by husband and wife team, Justin and Sydnee McElroy, which took teething as its subject. I was interested in what they had to say so I looked into it further.

The fact that adults, with teeth, were concerned when little teeth grew in their children’s mouths, thinking that something might be wrong, is baffling. Fair enough they might not have understood viruses and other complicated, invisible maladies, but…teeth…where did they think their pearly-whites came from? Did the olden days tooth fairy work in reverse? Put 50p under your pillow and she brings you a molar?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, many of the remedies for countering teething were much worse than just waiting for the teeth to actually come through. Quacks variously advised using leeches, blistering the baby’s gums and even using teething powders which contained mercury. Well done, everybody involved.

Teething is annoying, of course, but the physicians of history haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory on this topic. That said, with another poor night’s sleep I might be tempted to order some leeches on Amazon in the morning. Maybe we could all be issued with dentures when we start weaning, rather than go through teething – it would save a lot of pain and we’ll all probably need them in the end anyhow so why wait? This might be my next Dragons’ Den idea…

To read more about our experiences with the medical world, take a look at this Bewildered Dad blog post.

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