The terrors and traumas faced by teething babies in the 18th century
A little over 200 years ago, there was an affliction that was threatening the health of babies all over Europe. Doctors wrote about their dread in dealing with these young patients, all of whom were thought to be at risk of fever, diarrhea, convulsions and even death. The fact that this suffering kids were all under one-year-old only made things worse, as even in milder cases there would be a fair amount of crying, drooling, lost sleep and general irritation. Sadly, this affliction still tortures children today all around the world, but fortunately those kids aren’t being treated by 18th century doctors anymore, and will probably live to fuss another day.
The horrible, wide-spread malady wasn’t actually a malady at all, because it was teething. At anywhere from four- to seven-months-old, most human babies will have their first tooth cut through their gums. There’s generally some swelling and discomfort on the part of the kid who has to wait for their teeth to slowly erupt, and it can definitely be enough to disrupt sleep which of course makes everything in life go downhill fast. Teething kids also tend to drool like crazy, as well as try chewing more random objects than usual, which can introduce pathogens that could cause the aforementioned fevers and whatnot. It’s a rough process, but some painkillers plus appropriate chew toys, maybe the freezable kind, should ensure you survive without needing to worry about bad parenting or evil spirits.
This natural process wasn’t so well understood in the 18th century, which isn’t so surprising considering germ theory was still over a half a century away from being widely adopted by physicians. Doctors of drooling babies instead pinned blame on mothers’ prenatal activity, implying they should have prevented discomfort in their unborn child’s gums by keeping “a tranquil mind” at all times. The catch with this diagnosis is that it doesn’t leave many treatment plans on the table, which is where the evil spirits come into play.
Comforted by coral
Pieces of coral were believed to help protect babies from illness for over a millennium, and by the 16th century coral beads were considered a nice gift for a newborn baby if you could afford it. Maybe someone noticed the choking hazard of giving a kid beads, so coral teething sticks caught on as well. More opulent teethers were made of ornate silver or gold, which not only looked impressive, but supposedly repelled evil better than the coral could on its own. The babies were probably more impressed with the coral end, as the rough texture may have been satisfying to mash between their inflamed gums, assuming it didn’t become too covered in dirt and germs.
If decorative coral teethers were out of a family’s price range, other substitutes included ivory, wolves teeth, bone or stale bread crusts. Lumps of sugar wrapped in cloth were also offered, and may have been a great choice since sugar might act as a pain killer in young children.
From spirits to medical ‘science’
If the above all sounds rather nuts, it was actually preferable to what some less superstitious doctors prescribed. Some doctors worried that babies’ natural instinct to chew would actually cause them to form hard callouses on their gums, slowing the eruption of their teeth. (Note, at this point, my eight-year-old is completely agog, confirming that callouses are the same thing she has on her feet from running around outside.) So instead of being allowed to chew anything, doctors suggested that these babies be treated like adults with inflammatory diseases, complete with enemas, leeches and bleeding. (Eight-year-old is now shouting “WHAT!?” in dismay.) There isn’t a lot of data on the mortality rate of the babies receiving these treatments, but it’s probably safe to say that the parents stopped worrying so much about their children’s gums at that point.
Tinctures and tonics
In the 20th century, things theoretically improved for teething babes. Treatments based off of alcohol or morphine, from brandy-soaked chew rags to special tonics, were offered to ease troubled kids. Assuming dosing was kept to a minimum, this seems like it would at least calm the kids down enough to rest, and then let their parents rest as well.
Sadly, we’re still not completely out of the woods with dangerous treatments, as some homeopathic tablets sold under the guise of teething pain relief were recently found to contain dangerous levels of belladonna, a plant more famously known as Deadly Nightshade. Belladonna isn’t always deadly, but when sold as an untested, unregulated treatment, those infants may have been better off with some nice coral instead.
Source: Dangerous, Even Deadly: Teething in Jane Austen's World by Maria Grace, Random Bits of Fascination.com