The Trials of Teething: Soothing Infants in the Nineteenth Century

Mallory James

My guest today is Mallory James. Mallory has long been interested in the nineteenth century and set up her blog, Behind The Past, to indulge this passion. Her blog is made up of a series of how-to guides and lifestyle hints, aimed at any aspiring Regency and Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Here is her post on Victorian teething:

Early on in A Treatise on First Dentition, Jean Baptiste Timothée Baumes repeated a statistic which was seemingly accepted at the time: one sixth of infants lost their lives to ‘the accidents of dentition.’ While we may not be able explore the history of that figure here, and it should be added that Baumes’ text originally dates to the eighteenth century, it is not difficult to grasp the danger that illnesses such as fever and diarrhoea – which were commonly associated with teething – would have posed to infants during the nineteenth century. Clearly, the trials of teething are not to be taken in jest.

“First Born” by Gustve Leonard de Jonghe. Public domain.

Nevertheless, by exploring the advice given in this era – regarding the soothing of infants during the period of first dentition – we can consider some of the practical, daily elements of early childhood at that time. We can seek to re-create a snapshot image of certain aspects of ‘normal’ life. In this piece, we shall particularly focus on the means and methods of comforting a child, and of keeping them comfortable. Thus, the focus is on day-to-day routine and care during teething, rather than more specific practices, such as the lancing of gums.

When dressing the infant, a bib was supposed to be worn over their usual dress, in order to protect their chest from dribble. It was also thought to be important that the child’s head should be kept cool. Fresh air was also advised, as was keeping the bedroom cool. Baumes felt that the afflicted child should be lulled to sleep as much as possible.

Varied advice was also given in relation to the bathing of the infant. Letters to a Mother on the Management of Herself and Her Children in Health and Disease advised that a cold bath should be given each morning and evening. The Maternal Management of Children in Health and Disease suggested that the infant ought to be given a cold sponge bath once a day, to be followed by rubbing the child dry with a rough flannel. Medical Advice to Mothers on the Management of Children in Health and Disease recommended regular bathing, with a hot bath where the water reached the child’s hips being employed if the gums were tender and hot and the cheeks were flushed and feverish. After bathing, the child was then also supposed to be rubbed ‘well’.

Child’s rattle and teether. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the image of a teething infant is rarely complete without an actual teether. Various items were given to infants, but coral was frequently referenced. A coral teether often took the form of a rattle, with the coral as a stick at one end and silver bells at the other. Originally dating to the late eighteenth century, A Treatise on First Dentition advised that coral should not be given in the early stages of teething. Instead, the use of coral was supposed to be delayed until the emerging teeth had softened the gums enough to make chewing on the coral soothing. It was felt that giving the coral too soon would only serve to harden the gums, and thus worsen the process rather than ease it. A Treatise on First Dentition also mentioned the use of ivory and crystal as teething objects.

However, the employment of coral was later called into question. Some advised that ivory be given instead of coral, because it was offered in the shape of a ring and was thus safer for the child. They would not be able to injure their face, or put it into their nose or eyes. 

Alternatively, others argued that a ring of ‘India rubber’ was preferable to both coral and ivory. Complaints against coral included the repeated accusation that it was dangerous for hitting the face, and that the elasticity of rubber was better for teething gums. And, although ivory might have been offered in the form of a ring, its texture was nevertheless questioned.

In addition, there were various other options for teethers which were offered to infants. After all, a piece of coral ornamented with silver would clearly have been a luxury item.  Sometimes, an infant’s gums might simply have been rubbed with the tip of a finger. Liquorice root – perhaps soaked in honey – was also used, as were pieces of orris root, crusts of bread and wax candles. Baumes also suggested offering figs which had been cooked in milk or pressed between the fingers.

Lastly, the fiercely-worded warnings against the use of soothing syrups suggest they were, or were at some point, popular. These soothing syrups contained opiates, and children and infants lost their lives owing to their use. In the 1870s, On Teething of Infants and its Dangers argued that soothing syrups were often quack medicines where the strength of the solution was inconsistent. In short, teething was a threatening period of life in an already precarious world.

In conclusion, the methods and means of soothing infants – of administering to their general care and comfort – during the teething process changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Advice regarding the use of coral has been especially revealing in that respect. Exploring teething also takes us back into the homes, into the cribs, of the nineteenth century. It is a brief glimpse of everyday life, everyday sufferings, and everyday dangers.

If you are interested in connecting with Mallory on twitter, click here. For even more hints on scrupulous conduct and exacting propriety related to nineteenth century etiquette, she also just recently released her book “Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century.” A brief description follows:

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to live in the nineteenth century? How would you have got a partner in a ballroom? What would you have done with a letter of introduction? And where would you have sat in a carriage?

Answering all these questions and more, Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century was published by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017. With wit and vivacity it takes readers on a jaunt back in time, to explore the major and minor points of etiquette which shaped the lives of our well-heeled nineteenth-century forebears.

References:

  • Anon., The Mother’s Thorough Resource Book, (London: Ward and Lock, 1860).
  • Baumes, M., A Treatise on First Dentition, and the Frequently Serious Disorders which Depend Upon It, (New York: Fraetas and Kelley, 1841), [Originally published: 1783].
  • Bull, Thomas, The Maternal Management of Children in Health and Disease, 2nd Ed., (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1853).
  • Challice, John, Medical Advice to Mothers on the Management of Children in Health and Disease, (London: Henry Renshaw, 1851).
  • Conquest, J. T., Letters to a Mother on the Management of Herself and Her Children in Health and Disease, (London: Longman and Co., 1852).
  • Forbes, John., Tweeie, Alexander., Conolly, John., Dunglison, Robley., (eds)., The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine, Vol. 1, (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1859).
  • Gatty, Alfred Mrs., Waifs and Strays of Natural History, (London: Bell and Daldy, 1871).
  • Hanks, Henry, On Teething of Infants and its Dangers; Diseases of Children; The Causes and Prevention of Excessive Infant Mortality; The Evils Produced by Improper Feeding of Infants; And the Dangers of Teething Powders, Soothing Powers, Soothing Syrups etc., 2nd Ed., (London: Henry Renshaw, 1874).

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