Vintage Teething Secrets: The Ones to Remember and the Ones to Forget
May 01, 2020
Vintage: Sometimes it gives us cute high-waisted bell bottom jeans for $10 and sometimes it brings an awkward hipster twist on Hammer pants.
Point being that sometimes vintage works and sometimes…it really doesn’t.
The same is true when it comes to other “vintage” trends. Recently, we told you about 13 teething hacks, but we thought it’d be fun to go back a little farther in history to root out the most useful baby teething remedies from our forebearers and explore the remedies that are better left in the past. Like hammer pants.
STOP. LESSON TIME.
It’d be easy to think that with all of the affronts to survival our ancestors had to face on a daily basis that figuring out how to help a teething baby might be the least of their worries. However, teething was actually taken quite seriously by previous generations. Since mortality during the teething years was common for most of human history, teething was often attributed as the cause of death. In fact, this belief was so pervasive that according to the Registrar General’s report in 1842 in London, 4.8% of all infant mortality and 7.3% of toddler mortality cited teething as the cause of death. (We should clarify that there is no need to worry. This is not one of the things that history got right. Although your baby’s squalling might sound like an almighty death cry at times, teething in and of itself is not the cause of mortality.)
So, what did our forefathers and foremothers do to treat teething? A lot. We don’t have time in a short article to go through everything, but we will give you some of the highlights.
The good. The weird. And the downright ugly.
Let’s start with some of the most unsavory practices:
Just a little off the top…
In the sixteenth century, a French barber-surgeon (yes, that was a thing) named Ambroise Paré had the idea that teething resulted in mortality because there wasn’t a way for teeth to emerge from the gums. His solution? Literally lancing open the gums. This practice was popularly implemented until the late nineteenth century and recommended in dental textbooks as late as 1938.
Just a spoonful of poison…
A popular 19th century “cure-all” elixir was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Want to know why it was so soothing? Morphine. It was on the market all the way up until 1930!
But the poison doesn’t stop there…
Many teething powders used to contain calomel, which is a form of mercury. It was not removed from most teething powders until 1954 after it was shown to cause “pink disease” a form of, you guessed it, mercury poisoning.
Using teething gel was also a popular vintage remedy that has carried over to today. The problem? A numbing agent called benzocaine which can cause methemoglobinemia, a life-threating condition that lowers oxygen in the blood. The scariest part is that the FDA did not take action against products containing benzocaine until 2018.
And while we’re talking about poison, it should be noted that rubbing brandy on your baby’s gums, while a popular solution for many generations that is still often used today, is not something we recommend. True, it is not as detrimental as some of these other solutions, and can be effective at numbing, but alcohol + baby is just not a good formula for obvious reasons. Better to save the brandy for date night instead.
Just a small chokehold…
There has been a lot of talk lately in the homeopathic community about the healing efficacy of Baltic amber teething necklaces. Manufacturers claim that the succinic acid has a soothing effect when warmed against the skin and that this remedy been used for centuries, even recommended by Hippocrates. First off, historical ties to healing amber are dubious at best. Second, according to Aaron Celestian, Ph.D., an associate curator of mineral sciences at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, amber would need to be heated to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit to release the succinic acid. Trust us, although a slight raise in body temperature during teething is normal, your baby’s teething fever will never reach 400 degrees. Thank goodness. Another reason to hold off the jewelry? An expose in the NY Times last summer relayed a horrific story where a child was strangled by the amber teething necklace during naptime.
Just a pinch of brains, a dash of dog’s milk, and a wolf’s tooth…
A 1921 paper by a R.C. Clarke published in the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Journal explored a host of older ineffective practices which included suckling pig’s brains, dog milk, blood from a freshly-killed rooster’s comb, and suckling on a wolf’s tooth. Most of these sound not only downright gross, but also downright dangerous.
Just a whole lot of B.S…
Before you are too much in awe of R.C. Clarke’s research, you should know that his conclusions on why these strange solutions, as well as contemporary solutions such as teething powder, were ineffective was because teething symptoms were merely a psychological manifestation of overly protective mothers and overly ambitious doctors. His paper was even titled “The Teething Myth”, proving there is such a thing as being too skeptical.
Now that we’ve got our macabre on for the day and you’re glad you’re not raising kids pre-1954, let’s talk about some teething practices that DO work.
Butter me up! A common folk practice was to rub butter on baby’s gums. There has been ample evidence to suggest that healthy fats, such as butter, help to reduce inflammation. Of course, butter also is high in saturated fat, so it should be enjoyed in moderation. You might also want to try olive oil!
Time to put some powder on! While many teething powders were disbanded due to the mercury poisoning, Ashton and Parsons Teething Powder is still popular in the UK to alleviate teething symptoms and has had an unchanged mercury-free formula since 1867.
Hear that rattle? Rings, keys, and other baby teething toys have been used for centuries. Early editions were made out of coral, ivory or bone. They are still popular and still effective today at helping to relieve discomfort during teething.
Herbal concoctions: Chamomile in particular has been used as a remedy for a number of maladies for thousands of years across several cultures since ancient Egypt. For teething, it is particularly useful because it contains the antioxidant apigenin which helps to alleviate anxiety and induce sleep.
Good ol’ finger on the gums! It’s really the oldest trick in the book for a reason. One clean finger to massage the gums can provide some much-needed relief. It’s also comforting way to connect with your baby during a stressful time!
It can be so useful to revisit our past to learn the best practices of what to do and what not to do when it comes to raising our babies. Rely on your instinct as a parent as well as the hard evidence out there and you’ll be set. Whatever baby teething remedies you choose, remember that a large part of maintaining good oral health for your kids is taking care of those teeth when they come in! We’ve got you covered there.
Keep on smiling bright, even through those long teething pain nights. And maybe make a cup of chamomile for both your baby and you. You got this.