Some curious parenting advice from history

baby-cage 2
Public Domain Baby cage London

And somehow, those babies must have survived in order to produce subsequent generations.

Every culture and time has had its odd pieces of advice for new parents. And with new parents being the vulnerable, sleep-deprived swath of the population that they are, this advice has likely been embraced and inflicted on many a poor newborn. These tips might make you cringe, but they're a good reminder of how perfectly reasonable people can fall victim to ridiculous concepts -- and it makes one wonder what we're doing nowadays that will be laughed at by future generations.

1. No ugly thoughts!

Pregnant women in the 1910s were urged not to think about disfigured people, for fear of it affecting their baby's physical looks. "Pregnant mothers should avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease; avoid injury, fright, and disease of any kind," wrote B.G. Jefferis and J.L. Nichols in Searchlights on Health: The Science of Eugenics. Mandy Waysman writes in The Week:

"The advice didn't stop there. Mothers were told to "cultivate an interest in admiring beautiful pictures and engravings." These pictures, which were usually found in journals or magazines, were expected to help turn an unborn baby pretty."

2. Oil baths

Published in 1916, "The Mother and Her Child" by Drs. William and Lena Sadler give directions for a newborn's first bath, which involves smearing it all over with oil. This takes place immediately following the birth.

"This oil may be lard, olive oil, sweet oil, or liquid vaseline. Quickly, thoroughly, and carefully the entire body is swabbed with the warmed oil—the head, neck, behind the ears, under the arms, the groin, the folds of the elbow and knee—no part of the body is left untouched, save the cord with its dressing. This oil is then all gently rubbed off with an old soft linen towel."

As for subsequent skin issues with babies, the Sadlers recommended not using any soap, which they say is "very much abused with young babies" (and we at TreeHugger would agree!), but suggest replacing with Vaseline and talcum powder (not so good).

3. Don't feed your baby when you're angry.

In the early 1900s there was a belief that emotional distress could be transmitted through a mother's breastmilk and turn a baby colicky. Again, from the Sadlers' fascinating tome:

"If the mother worries greatly, or thoughtlessly 'gets very angry' just before the nursing hour, there is a substance known as 'epinephrin"' secreted by the glands located just above the kidneys which is thrown into the blood stream and which raises the blood pressure of the mother and often produces not only colic in the babe, but many times throws him into severe convulsions."

4. Too much love leads to dangerous political ideologies.

A 1962 parenting book written by Dr. Walter Sackett, Jr., warned that, "If we teach our offspring to expect everything to be provided on demand, we admit the possibility of sowing the seeds of socialism." In order to avoid raising dangerous little socialists, mothers were told to walk away from their crying babies -- "unless it's really time for eating, and after checking for wet diaper, an offending pin, or other irritation" -- and to ignore him or her during the night, as well as the day. (Note: 1962 was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

5. Beware of soft and social-climbing names.

One could argue this advice is still applicable nowadays, but the justifications used for it in the past are amusing to read. An article in the Lewiston Daily Sun from January 1928 urges parents: "Do not try too much for softness. Names like Lenora Molloy simply lack backbone." The same article advises against using names to try to climb the social ladder:

"With a name mothers tried to gain for their sons the social leap they themselves could not make. When those Percys and Reginalds began to grow up, instead of armoured knights riding plumed horses, they were pale-faced clerks, book-keeping on a high stool or peaked tailors taking your waist measure. People began to laugh."

6. Fathers should raise children exclusively.

An odd treatise written by Dr. William Cadogan in 1747, titled "An Essay Upon Nursing, and the Management of Children, from Their Birth to Three Years of Age," suggests that parenting be left solely to the fathers. "This Business [of childrearing] has been too long fatally left to the Management of Women, who cannot be supposed to have a proper Knowledge to fit them for such a Task." I suppose carrying, delivering, and nursing a child does not constitute adequate preparation for parenting in his eyes?

7. Put your baby in an outdoor cage.

Fresh air is always good for babies, but when it means suspending baby in a cage from an upper-story apartment, which was commonly done in 1930s London, it seems rather extreme. BuzzFeed wrote:

"Baby cages were attached to tenement windows as a way for infants to benefit from fresh air and 'the great outdoors' and all that nonsense. It was a reflection of the increasingly cramped conditions of urban living."

There's wisdom in "airing out" babies, and I suspect kids these days would be happier if they, too, were allowed to spend more time outside, though there are probably better ways to do it than hanging multiple storeys above a street in a wire cage.

8. Give opium to newborns to cure fussiness.

Opium use reached its peak in Britain in the 1830s, at which point officials began cracking down on imports and discouraging its use for recreational purposes. Meanwhile, using it medicinally was seen as fine, even for babies and young children. From io9:

"Stickney and Poor's Pure Paregoric syrup had forty-six percent alcohol, one and three-sixteenth 'grains of opium per ounce,' and contained a dosage chart that included five-day-old infants. They were to be given five drops of the stuff, which quieted them down. Two-week-olds got eight drops. Five-year-olds got twenty-five drops. An adult got a teaspoon. Another company made opium-filled cough drops, cherry flavored, and advertised it with cherubic children gathering up cherries."

All of a sudden, contending with collapsible playpens, car seats straps, and pacifiers on the floor doesn't seem so bad...

Tags: Babies | Health | Kids

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