Some teething problems

Teeth: I am dealing with a teething baby at the moment and I must say I wish humans were born with their teeth like some other animals. I am sure there are reasons why homo erectus is born toothless, but they will come as no consolation to a baby who is in pain (and his family). I find nothing works (apart from TLC of course): the powders, the waters, even Calpol offers limited relief. What did the Greeks and Romans do? I found an answer in Soranus’ Gynaecology. Soranus was a physician active at the turn of the first and second centuries CE. He was originally from the Greek-speaking city of Ephesus (in modern Turkey), but studied at Alexandria (the centre of medical learning at the time), and settled at Rome. He wrote (in Greek) on numerous medical topics, but besides his Gynaecology nothing much is preserved. For everyone who ever thought ancient medicine was barbaric, horrible, etc., reading the Gynaecology will be the antidote. Soranus shows great respect for women, their reproductive cycle, and birth. He rejects harsh and fashionable treatments, and even recognises the fact that some remedies (such as amulets), may ‘work’ even though he believes them to be inefficacious (placebo effect anyone?). The passage relating to teething is a bit long, so I will paraphrase most of it.
Soranus tells us that teething takes place around six months. He recommends that nothing chewy be given to the baby before that time. Instead, from four months, he encourages rubbing the gums and giving to the child a piece of hardened chicken fat or the brain of a hare (yes really!) in order to soften the gums. Once teeth have cut through, one should avoid butters, pungent ointments and lancing with a knife, but do the following:

Apply soft and clean pieces of wool to the neck, head and jaws, and moisten these with sweet olive oil, which you should also drop warm into the ears. If the inflammation remains, use cataplasms (poultices) made of the finest meal, or fenugreek or linseed. Also foment with sponges, especially on the gums – sponges that you will have anointed with honey boiled down to the right consistency.

Soranus then concludes on the diet the nurse should follow when feeding a teething baby. All sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? Could it be that relief for my baby-boy is waiting for us in my kitchen cupboard? Suet is used in teething remedies for puppies (Google tells me); olive oil is recommended by doctors in case of ear inflammations; fenugreek is often listed among those spices that can help nursing mothers; linseed can do no harm; and some mothers swear by honey for teething (plenty of that on the web). Honey, especially Manuka honey (not that that type of honey was available to the Romans), has emollient and anti-bacterial properties after all. There are two issues, however. 1) I have brushed that bit on brain of a hare right under the carpet; 2) honey should not be consumed by babies under one, so we are told. It can cause botulism, a very severe illness.

Issue 1 brings me back to my constant problem with ancient medicine: can I just pick ‘n choose the bits I like and quietly forget those I don’t. Issue 2 raises another set of questions: what to do when ‘folklore’ (remedies that have been around for thousand of years) and ‘established medicine’ contradict each other? What to choose? Do I take the risk and use honey on my baby son, following generations of women before me, or do I listen to NHS practitioners? Difficult one. I guess we are back to TLC then! Some TLC recipes for everyone right here:

This week, I have made some sugar scrubs and bath melts.

From left to right: soft brown sugar scrub; cocoa butter bath melts; caster sugar scrub

From left to right: soft brown sugar scrub; cocoa butter bath melts; caster sugar scrub

Sugar scrubs can be very expensive: a well-known chain of organic cosmetic products sells them for £13. Make it yourself and it will cost you a fraction of that price. And it is so simple. Here is what you need:

– 2 parts of sugar
– 1 part of a carrier oil
– some essential oil

Mix everything in a bowl; decant into a pretty container (sterilised); apply to wet hands; rinse off; apply moisturizer; et voila. I have given quantities in parts so that you can make exactly the amount you need.
I experimented a bit with this. My first scrub is made with golden caster sugar, almond oil and lavender oil. My second scrub is made with soft brown sugar, grape-seed oil and rose water. The smell is more sensual than that of your average scrub. The texture is also softer and stickier. I find it is lovely on my sensitive hands. Since it is made with rose water, I have to use it much faster than other scrubs, however. Do experiment: you could make a scrub with plain white sugar and olive oil. Don’t spend money for packaging, and a bit of antioxidant and preservative.

For the bath melts I took my inspiration from Kirstie Allsopp’ Craft and Karen Gilbert’s A Green Guide to Natural Beauty. Here is what you need:

100 gr. cocoa butter. Kirstie adds 50 gr. Shea butter. You could do that, but the texture of your melt will be crumblier.
– 50 ml. almond oil
– Lavender oil
– Some rose buds

I melted the cocoa butter in a double-boiler. You could use the microwave, but I find there is something quite therapeutic in doing this the old-fashioned way (more on the history of the double-boiler another time).

Cocoa butter melting in the double-boiler

Cocoa butter melting in the double-boiler

When the butter has melted, take off the heat and add the oils. Pour into moulds – I used  pretty chocolate moulds. Leave things to cool down a bit. After a while add the rose buds. Then put in the fridge for a few hours. It will help if you place your moulds onto a tray. Once the melts have hardened, remove from the mould and place in a lovely jar. I added a few rose buds for decorative effect.


Lovely cocoa bath melts

Lovely cocoa bath melts

Use the melts in the bath. It will smell gorgeous and your skin will be super soft. The only issue is that your bathtub might end up a bit greasy. Here is my tip (I can’t remember where I read it, so I can’t acknowledge my source): clean with washing liquid (the one you use for your dishes). It is meant to cut through fat, yet it is milder than most detergents. Also, take care of your plug-hole if you use melts regularly. Pour a bit of bicarbonate of soda down the hole, followed by some vinegar. Do this in front of children: the fizz you will create will seem like magic to them.

This entry was posted in Children's History, Cosmetics, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, Homemade cleaning products and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Some teething problems

  1. Lorna says:

    The bath melts look wonderful! I do hope G is feeling better: E still has four teeth to come, and they’re looking ominously like they want to break through…


    • Thanks Lorna. I should organise a cosmetic-making session with other P. ladies. A little goes a long way in cosmetic making I have noticed. G. has a cold and keeps pulling his ears, but seems happy in himself. Hope E.’s pox has cleared now.


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