Nothing prepared Alice and her husband Edward Kigo for the extra interest their newborn drew from friends and family when their daughter Maya was born.
And while the arrival of a baby’s first tooth is always an exciting time, theirs was stressful because Maya, their daughter, was born with teeth.
“When I delivered, she cried normally but the nurse noticed that there were two teeth on her lower gum. This alarmed my husband and I because our traditions associate it with a bad omen,” Alice says.
The situation worried the couple because it called for urgent travel to their rural home for a cleansing ceremony and for the services of a traditional healer who would ‘scrub’ away the unwanted teeth with a pumice stone because teeth in a newborn are associated with witchcraft. Eventually, the new parents opted for medical consultation from an oral health expert before discharge from hospital.
“We booked an appointment with a dental surgeon who after examining little Maya assured us that her teeth were firmly in place on the jaw and unless they posed a challenge during breastfeeding, we had a healthy baby in all aspects,” Alice says.
Even though it is normal for other mammals to be born with teeth, when it happens in humans, superstitions views emerge. Various myths exist to explain their occurrence and can be traced to Rome in 23 BC where it was believed that a splendid future awaited male infants born with teeth. However, girls born with teeth were considered a bad omen.
In England, the belief was that babies born with teeth would grow to be famous soldiers and in France the belief was that this condition would guarantee the conquest of the world. Prominent persons in history born with teeth include Persian Prophet Zoroaster and Military General Napoleon Bonaparte. Babies with these teeth mostly have two on the lower jaw. In the late 1980s however, a newborn in Japan was born with 14 teeth, sparking interest in the medical world.
Dental Surgeon James Gatune acknowledges that though rare, it is not abnormal that a baby is born with teeth because in all newborns the first set of teeth is already there, just under the gums; thus in the few whose are visible it should not breed superstition. “Before birth, teeth come from the oral epithelium in the facial region and start forming when the foetus is about four to six weeks old,” says Dr Gatune, adding that the two lower teeth are the most common location of the neonatal teeth.
Varied medical literature shows that closer home in many African tribes, children born with teeth were killed soon after birth because they were believed to bring misfortune to the community. But Dr Gatune calls for an aggressive public health campaign because teeth in newborns pose no health threat to the growing infant.
“If the teeth are not loose and do not interfere with breastfeeding, they should stay. Crude methods like scrubbing them off or removing them at home exposes the child to gum infection and bleeding that can lead to death,” warns Dr Gatune, who is also a principal lecturer at the Kenya Medical Training College.
According to Dr Gatune, there are two terms used to refer to teeth in a newborn depending on when they develop. When a baby is born with teeth, the medical term is natal teeth, whereas incisors that develop within 30 days after birth are called neonatal teeth. Other terms used to refer to these teeth include congenital teeth, foetal teeth, predecidual teeth among other terms.
Dr Gatune says the child’s first two teeth usually appear in the mouth at about six months of age although in girls it could begin at five months. They are referred to as milk teeth, whereas eruption of the remaining 18 primary teeth occurs in the first two years of age, approximately at the rate of one more tooth per month.
Dr Gatune notes that the exact cause for premature eruption or for appearance of natal and neonatal teeth is unknown, and that parents should embrace the newborn’s toothy smile. “If the tooth is loose however, it should be removed (preferably by a specialist) to prevent the child from swallowing or breathing it in,” says Dr Gatune.
In some cases, removal of these teeth may result in the child not having milk teeth. When this happens, they can be replaced when permanent teeth emerge at about five to seven years of age.
Teeth can erupt before the normal time — which is six months — and they can vary in shape and size. They may also have an opaque yellow-brownish colour. “Unless necessary, the teeth should be allowed to stay in place because their removal affects the development of the jaw and subsequent teeth,” Gatune adds.
According to Gatune, their forceful removal causes infection of the gum and surrounding tissue, which could turn fatal if prompt medical attention is not sought.
“The expectations about the eruption of the first teeth are great and are greater when the teeth appear early in the oral cavity,” says Dr Robson Frederico Cunha, an assistant professor at the Department of Pediatric Dentistry in Brazil.
Baby Maya turned seven months last week, and her parents are glad that more teeth are erupting to join the lonely pair that she was born with. Today, they call for public health education on prenatal teeth.