Demibone The Magic and the Mystery of Baby Teeth
Parents ask when their child’s teeth will go back to normal. Who has the heart to tell them never?
This is Demibone, a column by Ghinwa Jawhari that explores the stories our teeth tell.
We want to believe baby teeth are magic.
They were once, for example, tokens to the afterlife. They were susceptible to hexes and black magic. Reciprocally, they acted as protective charms. Warriors fashioned necklaces of baby teeth to protect them in battle. When launched toward the sun or earth, baby teeth could forecast stellar health. They could be planted like seeds for a lucrative future career. Baby teeth have been ground into powders, burned, buried, hurled, planted, hidden, and stashed. Americans will recognize the Western, classist iteration: A fairy exchanges the tooth under your pillow for cash.
Humans have assigned otherworldly meaning to baby teeth for centuries. Though our bodies exfoliate baby teeth predictably and unceremoniously, we place great importance on what we do with the tiny pearls. Even very young children have learned to announce a wiggly tooth with the same proud candor as their parents.
Baby teeth are shed between the ages of six and twelve. This is a precarious era of emotional, intellectual, and physical spurts. Growth seems to happen overnight. The face narrows, clothes shrink, the voice loses its squeaky lilt, and large new teeth cut to the surface. The young preteen that emerges from this transition never resembles—in spirit or in mouth—their five-year-old selves.
But rather than pay close attention to these remarkable developments, those around us emphasize the preservation of childhood. We reiterate the myth of fairies. We keep tiny teeth.
Perhaps we latch on out of the fear of our transformations. The expelled baby tooth makes way for a permanent successor. When it comes to the face, few changes are more noticeable or important than the transition from baby teeth to adult teeth. New growth can only occur when we lose the old.
Growth makes for one of the most well known transformation stories in contemporary folklore. Unlike Carle’s very hungry caterpillar or Kafka’s roach, Andersen’s ugly duckling doesn’t suddenly metamorphose into ‘other.’ His old body remains his new body. He just grows.
Retellings of the famous tale, often marketed for a young audience, are far less grim than the original. Disney’s Lilo & Stitch , for example, briefly alludes to the ugly duckling when Stitch reckons with his feelings as an outcast. The crying cygnet is shown rejoicing on the next page with a family of swans. Lilo explains to Stitch that he’s happy because he finally knows where he belongs.
Andersen’s narrative is not as straightforward or celebratory. The ugly duckling’s delayed hatching and unusually large egg immediately invite suspicion. Another duck advises his brooding mother that the latecomer could be an intruder. When the ugly duckling at last emerges, he is large and lanky, his gray down contrasting with the bright yellow of his siblings. Even his mother is appalled by his appearance.
In dental medicine, many humans will pass through an “ugly duckling stage” between eight and eleven years old. A fourth grade class photo can demonstrate. Within each small smile, the teeth appear mismatched—decks of tiny and large cards shuffled together. Some teeth are missing. Others look enormous for the child’s face. The disharmony is a result of baby teeth and their adult counterparts coexisting, a phase known as mixed dentition. This starts the moment the first permanent tooth appears (approximately age six) until the last baby tooth falls (or gets yanked out, at twelve). Humans lose teeth gradually, in a counterbalanced pattern that ensures we are never totally toothless after infancy.
“Ugly duckling stage” does refer to a specific clinical finding: splayed upper incisors—or front teeth—that have a large space between them. Think buck teeth. The incisors tip away from one another when their roots converge, flaring them forward and out. This happens naturally as adult teeth continue to push into the mouth. As a cousin pointed out on my own face years ago, the esthetic resembles “beaver teeth.”
Some parents understandably panic. When they bring their child to the dentist, they insist the kid needs braces. They ask why there are so many teeth or so few. They pridefully insist that no one in their family has bad teeth. What’s to blame? Their kid’s favorite foods, or a thumb-sucking habit, or their spouse’s genes, or smartphones? They say they want to fix this, but what they mean is they want to reverse it.
They ask when everything will go back to normal. Who has the heart to tell them never?
Adults in my parent’s circle ask children with missing teeth if “the mouse” ate them. For the Lebanese, this is likely a vestigial myth from the colonizing French, whose origins of the storied tooth mouse date as far back as the seventeenth century . My most recent memory of “akaliton el fara?” is at the airport in Beirut, my aunt cooing to my little brother whom she hadn’t seen in years. The tiny smile she remembered from 2010 was gone. New, jagged enamel glistened in his mouth.
During our summer trips, I kept my own mouth closed. My bad teeth were a source of immense shame. Concerned relatives held hushed discussions, unaware that I could overhear or understand their Arabic. My young cousins and the kids who played in the street had enough pity to say it to my face: ugly !
Momentarily suspended from American politeness or apathy, my summers in Lebanon established a pervasive condition: Looks are important, because how you look reflects your family. Women will spend years learning from our mothers to emanate poise, beauty, and elegance. For the public eye, the strenuous effort must remain invisible, while the results are lauded as “inheritance.”
They ask when everything will go back to normal. Who has the heart to tell them never?
From Lebanese women, including my mother, I learned to be generous, polite, social, and witty. All this while they were incredibly, effortlessly beautiful. Even at the supermarket. Even at the gym or on the sidewalk. Even at home. A wild laugh could seize them at any time and toss their heads back. They smiled easily and carelessly. They never covered their mouths. Outlining her lips in vivid red, my mother would balk whenever I turned down her offering, tube in hand, to do the same.
Over the years, I learned to pose for guests and photos, but I couldn’t trick the mirror. My mouth kept me from feeling like true beauty was attainable. Because beauty wasn’t attainable, I felt I couldn’t grow up to be a woman.
The ugly duckling stage affects all genders, and it’s typically temporary. The smile self-corrects at around twelve, once the adult upper canines—or “fangs”—come in. As their wolfish name suggests, the canines are quite formidable. They have the longest roots and can bear weight in many directions. Because they connect the front of the mouth with the back, and because of their many important roles in chewing, biting, and positioning, they are considered the guideposts of the jaws. Their full emergence often signals the end of the mixed dentition stage.
For many children, a wait-and-see approach can be damning. It has become a favorite chant for parents who don’t like the news they hear. Because bigger, stronger versions will replace baby teeth, they’re wrongly considered disposable. We are frequently met with the response that “they are going to fall out anyway,” as if the problem has a clever, biologic reset button that just requires patience. This is not only incorrect, but it reiterates the belief that childhood issues can solve themselves.
A baby tooth’s most important job is holding space for its adult successor, which it will help guide out of the gums. The roots of the baby tooth resorb as the adult tooth emerges. It’s as if baby teeth leave an invisible bread crumb trail for them to follow. Notice when a kid loses a baby tooth that it is flat, nearly rootless, an opalescent square. It has lost its connection to the jaw; that’s what makes it wiggly in the first place. In its final form, it sits atop the adult tooth like a cap on a soda bottle, ready to be flicked off.
Losing a baby tooth too early can forecast trouble later on. The adult teeth can erupt erratically, flared in the wrong direction, or they won’t come in at all. In some cases, surgeons and orthodontists work together to tunnel into bone and attach little chains to unerupted adult teeth, forcing them out with wires and brackets. If we know a baby tooth has to come out before its time (because of a cavity or trauma), we will usually outfit the kid with a space maintainer, a metal contraption that ensures the adult tooth can still find its proper spot when it’s ready.
Baby teeth also help us learn how to speak and articulate complex sounds—beyond the gummy mama and dada . Several phonetic tones are only possible once the child has some front teeth. (Interestingly, those are the first to emerge in both the primary and adult sets.) Baby teeth that become crowded, decayed, discolored, or severely worn can even help dentists identify early pathology. Their mystical value amid the fairies remains to be seen, but in the mouth, baby teeth are quite anatomically valuable despite their tiny size. They are crucial predecessors. Their health and presence is vital for the health and presence of our next set.
Our own predecessors dictate how our teeth develop. Genes from mama and dada control when and where your teeth come in, or your eruption pattern. This means the shape of your teeth, their color, size, and spatial orientation in the jaw (as well as the size of that jaw) all have hereditary components. Genetics introduces a vacillating subtext throughout childhood: subdued doom in the inevitable alongside insistent hope for a better version.
The mouth’s oracular, genetic link is best captured by this Arabic phrase, used to describe a son who closely resembles his father in features or mannerisms: “bazko min timmo.” Literally: He spit him from his mouth.
As a kid, I resembled both parents, which is a charitable way to say I resembled neither. My siblings had a clear link to one or the other. I had no such tether or likeness, no obvious ancestor to show me what would one day be me. My maligned teeth must have skipped a few generations.
My face reminded my relatives of even more distant relatives. My mother called my brows hers, my upper lip my father’s. The guesses reiterated an alienating, infantilizing androgyny that characterized my childhood and my teens. I “waited to see” for a long time, afraid of the dentists that met with my parents, afraid of an inaccessible femininity that seemed to loom before me.
“Bazko min timmo.” Literally: He spit him from his mouth.
So powerful was my smile’s influence on my self-image that it wasn’t until college—when I finally collected enough money and courage to fix it—that I could put my prohibitive timidity away for good. I wore lipstick for the first time when my braces came off. To my own surprise, I liked it. I smiled any opportunity I had, even during bad news. I sat and walked straighter, fidgeted less. My voice became loud. My body felt like a new animal, but not in the reckless, terrifying way it had during childhood or puberty. This time I had control.
The most important tooth in the mouth comes in without a predecessor.
At six, your first molar will erupt right behind your last baby tooth. You get four first molars: upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right. Between them, they do an overwhelming majority of your chewing. They are generously innervated and deeply grooved. They are even stronger than the canines, and their unique anatomy is cusped and hallowed such that they can obliterate food in a few bites.
Assuming you take care of them and keep them, they will one day become the oldest teeth in your mouth—the only ones to see you from early childhood to the grave.
One societal ritual, specific to the Levant, celebrates a child’s growth out of gummy infancy.
Lebanese mothers celebrate the arrival of a baby’s first tooth, at around six months, by making and distributing snayniyeh—a fragrant dessert made with hulled wheat, orange blossom water, sugar, and candied garnishes. Snayniyeh is derived from snan , the Arabic word for tooth. Relatives and close friends will return the empty jar with a small gift.
In about six years, that same celebrated tooth will get wiggly and fall out. A child will hold it in his sticky fingers. An adult will play the role of fairy. For a while, the exfoliated token will rest safely in a keepsake chest, or it will be thrown into the ocean, or buried, or disposed of some other way.
When my braces came off, I was twenty-one. I joked with my parents that I wanted snayniyeh to celebrate. I drove back to campus that day with my face upturned to the rearview, a perfect grin flashing from ear to ear. The sun glinted off of them. I knew I would remember it as a defining moment in my womanhood. It was. For the first time in my life, I felt I could make friends.
Hans Christian Andersen had no such luck. In interviews, he called “The Ugly Duckling,” published in 1843, his autobiography. The jury is still out on whether or not Andersen ever found his people. He was a miserable outcast as a child. Effeminate, clumsy, and gangly, he was the target of merciless bullying. Similarly, his protagonist’s ugliness invites doubt, excuses abuse, and justifies exile.
The final reconciliation scene with the swans, despite its beauty, is comparatively brief. His pedigree literally appears from thin air. Suddenly, the ugliness makes total sense. It falls from his neck like an albatross. Growth absolves him.
We want to insist that childhood—with its peculiar, tender ugliness—bears mystical meaning, or that it can roadmap our futures like constellations guiding a ship. In some ways, it does. But our need to latch on, to lie about our ages, or to embrace getting older with gritted teeth all suggest a tendency to linger too long on what’s lost.
Watching children shed tiny teeth and grow awkwardly into their new, beautiful mouths speaks to all that lies ahead. Every gray cygnet will become a swan. There’s a strength in not believing that the past was the greatest part of your existence, in choosing instead to use it only as a gauge. Where are you? And how far have you come?