History, Topic of the Past

How to Raise Children: Insights from Plato, Quintilian and others

92.W Statuette of the (pregnant) Goddess Taweret, 332–30bc, Upper Egypt Credit Line Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926

One article on 19th and 20th century baby care history presents much of the conflicting advice from child care experts over the last 100 years. According to the article, such advice is a conglomeration of pseudoscience, authoritative statements, and often unreasonable demands of mothers.

In one example, Dr. George H. Napheys, author of The Physical Life of Woman, cites a study by child care “expert” Dr. Henry Kennedy. According to the results of the study, parents that care about their infant’s health will ensure that their babies always sleep with their heads pointing north. Apparently, this was a form of the Chinese practice of feng shui before it became popular in the Western world.Disturbingly enough, many parenting manuals throughout baby care history, many “experts” in the 19th century used the world “eugenics”, before Hitler demonstrated the end result of that concept. Reading some of the popular parenting “advice” of the 19th century may well make modern parents wonder how any children survived baby care history with even a modicum of mental health.

In 1916, Drs. William and Lena Sadler, in their publication The Mother and her Child advised parents to

“Handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone; crying is absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs. A baby should cry vigorously several times each day.”

To most modern parents, this seems insensitive at best and abusive at worst. However, lest these parents be judged too harshly, some statistics of the time may be relevant. For example, according to the CDC, in 1900, anywhere from 10% to 30% of American babies died before they reached their first birthday. Many deaths were due to tainted drinking water or from unpasteurized cow’s milk.
Such a high death rate was one reason that American mothers were all too ready to take the advice of medical professionals, especially obstetricians and pediatricians. While the baby care history of experts contains some who were genuinely concerned for the welfare of parents and children, it is also true that once a few of these professionals had gained wealth and fame for their contributions to the child care field, others eagerly entered the arena.

Another reason for their success was that many people in American had moved west in search of employment opportunities. That meant that new parents were unable to utilize the wisdom and experience of the previous generation. Further, with smaller “nuclear” families, many new parents had very little experience with seeing others care for infants.

In her book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, author Ann Hulbert sheds light on the personal lives of some of these child care “experts”. Among those highlighted in the book are L.Emmet Holt, who wrote The Care and Feeding of Children in 1894, Arnold Gessel, and Benjamin Spock, who published the wildly popular The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946.

Since those books were published, baby care history has evolved into a more child-centered, rather than parent-centered, focus. Discipline has also come to mean teaching self-control rather than focusing on external punishment. You can hear an audio interview with NPR with Ann Hulbert in which her purpose, of pointing out the contradictory nature of expert advice over the years, is evident in her responses to real parents who call in to ask for advice.

In one review the book is described as a “chronological guided tour through the various psychological and sociological schools that have at one time or another held sway over the last century, pointing out the “inconsistent, often quickly obsolescent, counsel peddled to the public” and relating changing mores to other social shifts.” Like other types of history, baby care history is often not written by mothers themselves, but by those who benefit directly or indirectly from the still largely unpaid labor of mothers.

In a world in which child care advice “professionals” are all too ready to profit from the anxiety of new mothers, who are often deprived of the wisdom of mothers and grandmothers, in their desire to best care for their children, a voice which urges mothers to rely on themselves and one another is welcome. Her book helps parents differentiate between the often contradictory advice offered by experts, as well as dispelling some of the myths that have been widely propagated throughout years of such advice.

In some very important ways, she is in agreement with Dr. Spock, in that she believes that most mothers are better than they think they are, and the best support that mothers have is one another. The baby care history of the future will likely be written far less by experts, and more by mothers themselves.

baby care history
Statuette of the (pregnant) Goddess Taweret, 332–30bc, Upper Egypt Credit Line Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926
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