In ancient times, parents didn’t have the luxury of a Walgreens or Rite Aid to run to when their child was teething. Instead, they were left with some pretty brutal remedies – from using hot stones on baby’s gums and rubbing peppermint oil in their eyes to dunking them into a cold bath and even hanging them by their feet!
Once upon a time, misinformation about teething was rife. In fact, in ye olden days, teething issues were thought to be one of the leading causes of death in babies.
Once upon a tooth
This misconception was so widespread that in 1842 ‘teething’ was the registered cause of death for just under 5 percent of infants who died in London aged younger than one year old, and 7 percent of those aged between one and three years. Gosh only knows what the real cause of death was for all those poor poppets.
Teething has been top of mind for parents for literally thousands of years and, as these misattributed London baby deaths show, it’s been chronically misunderstood for thousands of years as well.
Primitive teething ‘remedies’ included all sorts of horrible things. We’re talking treatments like blistering and bleeding of the gums, or placing leeches on the feet, or where teeth were thought to be emerging.
Teething has been debated and agonized over since mankind’s very, VERY early days. According to a Nature-published paper, “there are references to teething difficulties in the Homeric hymns from around 1200 BC and in the prayers of early Indian literature around 1000 BC.”
Blame it on the teething
By the 300s Hippocrates was attributing all sorts of ills to teething. He said: “Teething children suffer from itching of the gums, fevers, convulsions and diarrhea, especially when they cut their eye teeth and when they are very corpulent and costive” (from 25th Aphorism, 3rd book).
It’s fair to say that he might have contributed generously to the whole teething chain-of-misinformation thing.
Rabbit and pigs’ brains were another favorite gum soother. Shudder. In a piece on the history of teething published in Nature, MP Ashley writes:
“There is a recorded cure from the fourth century AD, “If they are in pain, smear the gums with dog’s milk or hare’s brain; this works also if eaten. But if a tooth is coming through with difficulty, smear Cyperus with butter and oil-of-lilies over the part where it is erupting”. (Cyperus is a type of plant.)
It’s not just the Europeans who fancy rubbing gums with not very delicious things. In American folklore, it’s suggested that babies will be soothed by rubbing a minnow (a tiny fish) where teeth are sprouting.
In the 1500s
The French surgeon Ambroise Paré introduced the abhorrent approach of lancing babies’ gums, believing that teeth that were slow to emerge needed a clear pathway.
Thankfully lancing – literally cutting open the gums to expose the teeth – was abandoned, but not until the 1930s.
The poor babies! Sob.
In the 1800s
By the 1800s parents were also drugging their babies to help ease their teething woes. There were lots of different preparations on the market which promised to “give rest to yourselves and relief and health to your babies”.
Unfortunately, this was because they contained varying quantities of morphine and alcohol.
Next came teething powders, which were laced with a form of mercury called calomel. This resulted in babies getting even sicker. Because of POISON.
Ancient teething toys
Honestly, no wonder we think of teething as a terrible time. It was a time when babies were historically mistreated in the name of these supposed ‘teething remedies.
Of course, teething treatments were not the only approach to easing the emergence of baby teeth. Teething toys have been around for centuries as well. Sometimes babies were given semi-precious stones, wolves’ teeth, snakes’ teeth, woodlice, donkey hair, plant roots, bone, ivory, or coral either mounted on a silver handle or worn as an amulet around their neck or waist. This was thought to offer a kind of magical relief for teething bubs.
This is all any parent wants when their baby is stroppy, really. Perhaps we should all be adorning our tots with belts of coral or animal teeth?! I think we’ll draw the line at a viper’s vertebrae necklace though.
Ancient teething remedies were as bonkers as they were brutal. Ancient baby teething remedies included blistering and bleeding of the gums, or placing leeches on the feet, or where teeth were thought to be emerging. Thankfully lancing was abandoned in the 1930s but not until then.
Ancient babies didn’t have it any easier with their semi-precious stones, wolves’ teeth, snakes’ teeth (or vipers), woodlice, donkey hair plant roots bone/ivory/coral either mounted on a silver handle or worn around their neck for magical relief!
This is all any parent wants when their baby is stroppy – restful sleep without pain from inflamed gums because that’s all any parent wants. Ancient teething toys included semi-precious stones, wolves’ teeth, snakes’ teeth (or vipers), woodlice, donkey hair plant roots bone/ivory/coral either mounted on a silver handle or worn around their neck for magical relief! Ancient baby teething remedies were as bonkers as they were brutal.