Teething is the process whereby a baby cuts their first set of teeth. As the teeth grow, they cut through the gums. Symptoms of this include pain, redness of the gums, flushed cheeks and increasing drooling. Occasionally, a baby may also develop a slightly higher temperature whilst teething. This elevated temperature is distinct from a fever, as the higher temperature associated with teething should not rise above 37.8 degrees celsius. Symptoms of teething also manifest in the behaviour of a child: they may be anxious, distressed and cry more, and they may try to chew on hard objects.
Teething is listed as the cause of death for over 450 children who are buried in the Leeds General Cemetery. This may seem surprising at first, as today teething is not considered to be dangerous. However, in the 1800s, teething was often listed as a cause of death. The Leeds General Cemetery burial registers only cover 1835 to 1969, but teething continued to be given as a cause of death in England until 1979.
There are a few different reasons for this. Firstly, in the 1800s, teething was not well understood as a process, so it may be the case that some doctors considered teething to carry a risk of death in and of itself. In the 1900s, some doctors believed there was a link between teething and sudden infant death syndrome, but this is now widely believed to be incorrect. Further, many misconceptions about the symptoms of teething were held in the past, both by caregivers and by doctors. Fever was widely believed to be a normal symptom of teething. We know now that the elevated temperature of a teething child is distinct from a fever, but caregivers in the 19th century may not have known this, or have had access to equipment like thermometers to monitor the child.
Fits, convulsions and diarrhoea were also thought to be common symptoms of teething. Evidence of this can be seen within the burial registers: some entries include ‘teething fits’ or ‘teething convulsions’. If a child developed these symptoms whilst teething, they were often thought to be normal, expected side effects of teething. Thus, they would go untreated and the underlying condition would not be discovered. If this condition led to the death of the child, the cause of death would instead be noted as ‘teething’.
Visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index to view all entries in the registers relating to teething. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the breakdown of who this affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.