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Public Health (1992), 106,465-471

The Society of Public Health, 1992

Beliefs about Prematurely Erupted Teeth in Rural Yoruba


Communities, Nigeria
C. O. Oyejide, MB BS PhD 1 and G. A. Aderinokun, BDS MPH 2

1Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, College of Medicine,


University College Hospital, Ibadan; and 2Department of Preventive
Dentistry, College of Medicine, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria

A descriptive study was carried out in two villages: Badeku and Olodo, near the city of
Ibadan, between May and November 1990. The objective of the study was to investigate
the knowledge, beliefs and attitudes of respondents to premature eruption of deciduous
teeth in babies. Of the 622 people interviewed, a large proportion (30.5%) believed that
the first deciduous tooth should erupt between the age of 5-7 months; the next
commonly mentioned time of tooth eruption was 7-9 months of age; and 50.3% of the
respondents claimed to have seen a case of prematurely erupted primary teeth. There
was a statistically significant association between age and also between educational status
of respondents and having seen premature eruption of teeth (P < 0.01).
The majority of the people (53.7%) felt that the condition was an indication of an evil
child. Only 22.1% of those interviewed thought it could be just an individual variation.
On the recommended remedy or management of the condition, as many as 26 (4.I%)
said they would get rid of the child. A high percentage felt that sacrifices should be
offered to appease the gods.
It is suggested that a transcultural approach be adopted in managing cases in which
the parents feel particularly anxious and uncomfortable about prematurely erupted teeth
in order to cater for the social well-being of the child and family. It is also recommended
that appropriate health education be directed at the society as a whole concerning this
condition.

Introduction
E m e r g e n c e o f t h e first d e c i d u o u s t e e t h in b a b i e s s h o w s as m u c h v a r i a t i o n b e t w e e n
o n e i n d i v i d u a l a n d a n o t h e r as it d o e s a m o n g d i f f e r e n t r a c i a l g r o u p s . 1-9 S t u d i e s o n
e r u p t i o n d a t e s of d e c i d u o u s t e e t h h a v e n o t e d e r u p t i o n of t h e first p r i m a r y t e e t h to b e
at o r a b o u t six m o n t h s o f age. ~-9 O c c a s i o n a l l y , h o w e v e r , e r u p t i o n o f p r i m a r y t e e t h
m a y o c c u r p r e m a t u r e l y . This p r e m a t u r e e r u p t i o n c o u l d b e o f two types. S o m e b a b i e s
a r e b o r n w i t h t e e t h in t h e m o u t h - a c o n d i t i o n g e n e r a l l y r e f e r r e d to as n a t a l t e e t h .
S o m e o t h e r s e r u p t t e e t h within the first 28 d a y s o f life, a n d t h e s e a r e r e f e r r e d to as
n e o n a t a l t e e t h . ~0
N a t a l a n d n e o n a t a l t e e t h a r e o f t e n l o w e r c e n t r a l i n c i s o r t e e t h b e l o n g i n g to t h e
n o r m a l d e c i d u o u s series. 11,12,13,14 T h e y c o u l d b e f u r t h e r q u a l i f i e d as m a t u r e o r
i m m a t u r e t y p e s d e p e n d i n g o n t h e d e g r e e o f m a t u r i t y o f t h e e n a m e l at t h e t i m e o f
eruption. These prematurely erupted teeth are usually mobile consequent on lack of
r o o t f o r m a t i o n . F o r f e a r o f b e i n g a s p i r a t e d , t r a u m a t i s m to m o t h e r ' s n i p p l e s a n d
d i s c o l o u r a t i o n o f t h e e n a m e l in t h e i m m a t u r e t y p e s , t h e s e t e e t h a r e u s u a l l y e x t r a c t e d .
O c c u r r e n c e o f n a t a l t e e t h varies b e t w e e n 1 in 2,000 a n d 1 in 3,667 live births. 12,15
Correspondence to: Dr G. A. Aderinokun.

466

C. O. Oyejide and G. A. Aderinokun

Records of the incidence in Nigeria to date are lacking. The condition is nevertheless
occasionally encountered in clinical dental practice. Mothers of young babies present
at times requesting the removal of such prematurely erupted teeth. A common
feature which is striking is the anxiety of such mothers that the teeth be extracted at
the earliest possible time. The explanation for this behaviour is the negative societal
reaction to seeing teeth in the mouth of such young babies.
Observation of this general unease among parents of these babies initiated a study
to investigate the myths, beliefs and mode of management of prematurely erupted
teeth in two rural Yoruba communities and thus to recommend appropriate clinical
management in the context of the findings.
Materials and Methods

A descriptive study was carried out in two rural communities: Badeku and Olodo,
which are about 20 km from Ibadan City. These villages serve as sites for Primary
Health Care activities of the Institute of Child Health, University College Hospital,
Ibadan. The objective of the study was to document beliefs about prematurely
erupted teeth and the usual remedy for the condition in the two villages.
Meetings were held with the community leaders during which the objective of the
study was explained and their consent sought.
A standardized questionnaire was designed to elicit, among other things relating to
tooth eruption, beliefs about the cause of premature eruption of teeth in babies and
the recommended management of the case. The questionnaire was translated into
Yoruba, the local language. It was then pre-tested in another village similar to the
study sites.
Field workers were recruited from the villages, hence they could conduct interviews
in the evenings when residents returned from their farms and market-places. Training
of the field workers consisted of sessions in which one of the investigators first
discussed and practised interview techniques with them in the office, followed by
further sessions in the field. The workers were evaluated after the training sessions.
One of them had to be dropped because his results varied markedly from those of the
others.
Every household in the two villages was included in the study and selected
respondents comprised every third adult on the list of inhabitants.
Each completed questionnaire was checked by the investigators for missing information and immediately returned for correction. Data were entered onto an IBM PC
AT microcomputer using the data entry software DATASTAR. Data analysis was
done with SYSTAT, a comprehensive statistical package. Frequency distributions and
relevant tables were generated. The chi-square test of association was used where
appropriate.
Results

A total of 622 questionnaires were completed from both villages; 40% of the
respondents were males. The age distributions are as shown in Table I: 14% were
under the age of 30 years. Their educational status is shown in Table II, with 51.1%
of respondents having no formal education. A large proportion of respondents from
this rural population (30.5%) believed that the first milk tooth should erupt between
the ages of 5-7 months. The next commonly mentioned time of tooth eruption was

Beliefs about Prematurely Erupted Teeth


Table I
Age at eruption
of first tooth

Perceived normal time of eruption of first tooth in babies

Below 30 years

(months)
3-5
5-7
7-9
9-11
>11
Missing
Total

467

13 (14.9)
39 (44.8)
20 (23.0)
5 (5.7)
7 (8.0)
1 (1.1)
87 (100)

31-40
15 (11.6)
58 (44.9)
30 (23.2)
15 (11.6)
11 (8.5)
0 (0)
129 (100)

Age of respondents in years


41-50
Over 50
9 (5.8)
52 (33.7)
60 (38.9)
25 (16.2)
8 (5.1)
0 (0)
154 (100)

8 (3.2)
41 (16.3)
72 (28.6)
98 (38.9)
32 (12.7)
1 (0.3)
252 (100)

Total
45 (7.2)
190 (30.6)
184 (29.0)
143 (22.9)
58 (9.3)
2 (0.3)
622 (100)

Figures in parentheses are percentages.


X2 = 112.1; df = 12; P < = 0.01.
Table I1 Perceived normal eruption time by educational status of respondents
Age at eruption
of first tooth
(months)

No formal
schooling

Arabic
education

Primary
eduction

Postprimary
education

Total

3-5
5-7
7-9
9-11
>ll
Missing information
Total

13 (4.1)
93 (29.3)
99 (31.1)
79 (24.8)
32 (10.1)
2 (0.6)
318 (100)

10 (9.1)
28 (25.5)
31 (28.2)
34 (30,9)
7 (6.4)
0 (0)
110 (100)

5 (5.1)
44 (44.4)
33 (33.3)
10 (10.1)
7 (7.1)
0 (0)
99 (100)

17 (17.9)
25 (26.3)
21 (22.1)
20 (21.1)
12 (12.6)
0 (0)
95 (100)

45 (7.2)
190 (30.6)
184 (29.6)
143 (23.0)
58 (9.3)
2 (0.3)
622 (100)

Figures in parentheses are percentages.


2"2 = 44.0; df = 12 P = < = 0.01.
7 - 9 months of age. There was a statistically significant association between age of
respondent and reported time of tooth eruption ( P < 0.01) with a higher proportion
of those over 40 years old believing in late times of eruption, i.e., 7 - 9 months and
above (Table I). Similarly, there was a statistically significant association between
educational status and perceived time of tooth eruption (Table II) with a greater
proportion of those with secondary education believing in earlier times for eruption.
There was no statistically significant association between sex of respondent and
perceived time of tooth eruption.
On the question of deviation from perceived normal time, 73% of the rural
dwellers believed that such a situation sometimes occurs.
About half (50,3%) of the respondents claimed to have seen a case of prematurely
erupted primary teeth. There was a statistically significant association between age
and also between educational status of respondents and having seen premature
eruption of teeth ( P < 0.0i), meaning that the older people were more likely to have
seen the condition (Table III). A higher proportion of those with lower level of
education claimed to have seen teeth that erupted too early (Table IV). T h e r e was,
however, no association between sex of respondent and having seen a case of
premature eruption.

C. O. Oyejide and G. A. Aderinokun

468
Table III

Number of respondents who had seen prematurely erupted teeth by age

Responses
<30
Yes
No
Missing information
Total

19
68
0
87

(21.8)
(78.2)
(0)
(100)

Age in years
41-50
>50

31-40
31
98
0
129

(24.0)
(76.0)
(0)
(100)

89
65
0
154

(57.8)
(42.2)
(0)
(100)

174
77
1
252

(69.0)
(30.6)
(0.4)
(100)

Total
313
308
1
622

(50.3)
(49.5)
(0.2)
(100)

Figures in parentheses are percentages.


22 = 103.5889; df = 3; P < = 0.01.
Table IV

Respondents who had seen prematurely erupted teeth by educational status

Responses

No formal
schooling

Arabic
education

Primary
education

Yes
No
Missing information
Total

169
148
1
318

65
45
0
100

42
57
0
99

(53.1)
(46.6)
(0.3)
(100)

(59.1)
(40.9)
(0)
(100)

(42.4)
(57.6)
(0)
(100)

Post-primary
education
37
58
0
95

(38.9)
(61.1)
(0)
(100)

Total
313 (50.3)
308 (49,5)
1 (0.2)
622 (100)

Figures in parentheses are percentages.


2.2 = 11.90288; df = 3; P = 0.01.
W h e n asked to state the cause of the condition, 53.7% of the p e o p l e felt that the
condition must be an indication of an evil child. Only 22.1% of those interviewed
t h o u g h it could just be an individual variation (Table V).
T h e r e was a statistically significant association b e t w e e n age and r e p o r t e d cause of
p r e m a t u r e e r u p t i o n of teeth ( P < 0.01). T h e definition of an evil child included
' A b i k u ' , ' O g b a n j e ' , d e m o n - p o s s e s s e d child, or a vessel of the gods. A few ( 8 % ) ,
a t t r i b u t e d the condition to the m o t h e r ' s deeds in p r e g n a n c y which might have
c o n t r a v e n e d traditional taboos. A statistically significantly higher p r o p o r t i o n of
Table V

Perceived cause of premature tooth eruption by age of respondents

Perceived causes
Individual variation
Evil child
Mother's exposure
in pregnancy
Mother's exposure
leading to contact
with evil child
Missing information
Total

<30

31-40

Age in years
41-50

>50

Total

19 (21.9)
35 (40.2)
7 (8.0)

31 (24.1)
49 (37.9)
16 (12.4)

41 (26.6)
82 (53.2)
15 (9.8)

47 (18.6)
168 (66.7)
12 (4.8)

138 (22.2)
334 (53.7)
50 (8.0)

25 (28.7)

32 (24.8)

15 (9.8)

21 (8.3)

93 (15.0)

1 (1.2)
87 (100)

1 (0.8)
129 (100)

1 (0.6)
154 (100)

4 (1.6)
252 (100)

7 (1.1)
622 (100)

Figures in parentheses are percentages.


2.2 56.35179; df = 9; P = 1.490116.
=

Beliefs about Prematurely Erupted Teeth

469

respondents with lower levels of education believed such a child to be an evil child
(Table VI).
When the people were asked the implication of premature eruption of teeth on the
child and his family, 52.9% believed that it was a curse and also an embarrassment to
the family; 35.2%, on the other hand, thought it did not bear any significance or
stigma to the family.
When asked the recommended management of such a child, quite incredibly, as
many as 26 (4.1%) of the rural dwellers said they would get rid of the child. A high
percentage felt that the teeth should be extracted after the appropriate sacrifices were
offered to appease the gods and reverse the curse on the family. A large number
responded that they would not institute any treatment.
Similarly, the subject of childen who never erupt any teeth attracted some extreme
reactions. Almost all respondents (81.9%) said it was an impossibility. Of the few
who admitted that it could be a possibility, 25.1% attributed the condition to evil
forces while 33.7% said it was merely a human variation. Not surprisingly, 41% of
the people recommended that such a child should be managed by the traditional
healers.
Discussion

Parsons's sick role theory assumes that illness has not only a biological dimension but
is also a social deviance in that it prevents the individual from fulfilling social roles.16
The sick role carries privileges of the individual being exempted from responsibilities.
Friedson 17 expanded on Parsons's model by suggesting that the sick role encompasses three types of legitimacy depending on the nature of the condition:
1. conditionalized legitimacy with the rights and privileges
corresponding to Parsons's sick role theory;
2, unconditional legitimacy which applies to chronic illnesses
there is no cure;
3. some forms of illness are never legitimized although the
assigned the sick role. The individual has no privileges in the
and epilepsy.
Table VI

of the sick r o l e - or conditions where


individual has been
case of mental illness

Perceived cause of premature eruption by educational status of respondents

Perceived
causes

No formal
schooling

Arabic
education

Primary
education

Post-primary
education

Total

Individual variation
Evil child
Mother's exposure
in pregnancy
Mother's exposure
leading to contact
with evil child
Missing information
Total

68 (21.4)
165 (51.9)
23 (7.2)

20 (18.1)
78 (70.9)
6 (5.5)

20 (20.2)
55 (55.6)
12(12.1)

30 (31.6)
36 (37.9)
9 (9.5)

138 (22.2)
334 (53.7)
50 (8.0)

57 (17.9)

6 (5.5)

11 (11.1)

19 (20.0)

93 (15.0)

1 (1.0)
99 (100)

1 (1.0)
95 (100)

7 (1.1)
622 (100)

5 (1.6)
318 (100)

Figures in parentheses are percentages.


X2 29.52867; d f - 9; P< = 0.01.
=

0(0)
110 (100)

470

C. O. Oyejide and G. A. Aderinokun

The case of prematurely erupted teeth seems to fall into Friedson's third category in
the context of the Yoruba community in which the present study has been carried
out.
Society's attitude towards certain conditions or phenomena plays an important role
in the life of those who are so labelled. It may affect the pursuit of a job, a place to
live, friends and future family life.
From the results of the present study, it appears as if a child born with teeth or
who erupts teeth within a few days of birth will be stigmatized and this is bound to
affect his interaction especially within that particular community. This explains the
anxiety demonstrated by mothers of such children presenting at the clinic. The results
further show that these negative views are c o m m o n e r among the older age group such
as grandmothers or grandfathers. It is well known that they are custodians of
traditions and have a lot of influence in the decision-making process. Thus they would
significantly contribute to mounting pressures on the young mothers of babies with
natal and neonatal teeth.
As previously mentioned, the prematurely erupted teeth may be extracted if they
are too mobile, if they traumatize the mothers's nipples or if they are greatly
discoloured. The current line of management tends to preserve the teeth utilizing
various procedures. 13"15 This is because these teeth often belong to the normal
deciduous series and their removal may lead to malocclusion at a later date. Based on
this current trend, it was earlier suggested that mothers be educated, reassured and
encouraged to comply with measures taken to preserve natal and neonatal teeth. TM
However, in the light of the results of this study, which brings to view the strong
societal implications of the condition on the family and child, it may be necessary to
review the recommendation now viewing the problem in a transcultural perspective.
The transcultural approach requires an ability to adopt a degree of perceptual
distance from any two cultural traditions involved in specific health-related interactions. 19 Often, the significance of taking the 'total' patient welfare into consideration
is frequently lost to the orthodox practitioner who perceives every sphere of
treatment as being right only from his own angle and believing that he holds the
answer to the complete welfare of the patient. In the case in question, the
practitioner is apt to try and dissuade the parent from removing the deciduous teeth
which have erupted too early especially if they are quite firm and when facilities exist
to preserve them. However, sensitivity to the consequences of the condition on the
patient's welfare may make the professional have second thoughts and comply with
the parents' wish to extract the teeth. Thereafter, a space maintainer may be placed
in the position of extracted teeth pending the eruption of permanent teeth. This
approach should ensure patient satisfaction and foster trust in the dentist by patients
who would otherwise be lost to follow-up or drop out completely.
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