'Don't Think of Ugly People': How Parenting Advice Has Changed

The curious history told in 19th and early 20th century mothering advice books is a mix of unreasonable demands and unfounded claims. At the same time, though, one can see how it made sense.

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I recently visited my friend Julia, mostly to nuzzle the head of her newborn, Eloise. As Julia and I talked, I shifted Eloise to lie on my stomach, facing the large television that dominates Julia's living room.

Suddenly Julia's relaxed body snapped alert. "Oh! No, turn her around. She's not allowed to watch TV until she's two." She seemed prepared to jump up and shield her daughter from the television. I turned Eloise's warm little body around, kissing her cheek as I did it, "Uh-oh, Sweetie," I told her. "You have those kind of parents."

What Eloise has, like most babies, are good parents. Good parents, especially first time parents, seek advice. Julia and her husband are following the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that screen time for babies is unhealthy. They have a fat stack of parenting guides sitting in their daughter's carefully assembled nursery, full of similar information that can help them care for a person who has very specific needs which she can't communicate.

The market is pretty much choking on baby care books today. The a phenomenon seemed to launch in the 1950s with Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care. While his child-rearing advice reached the largest audience in history, he was by no means the first to put rules for infant care in authoritative print. The business of instructing mothers on how to do their job really bloomed in the 19th century.

If you're a fan of peculiar history, you won't do better than 19th and early 20th century mothering advice books. They are conglomerations of pseudoscience, unreasonable demands, and authoritative statements without foundation.

At least they seem so now.

In 1878, in The Physical Life of Woman, Dr. George H Napheys cites a published study by child care expert Dr. Henry Kennedy. The study presented evidence that, if you truly wanted your child to maintain health, the baby's sleeping position most always be with the head pointing due north. "There are known to be great electrical currents always coursing in one direction around the globe. In the opinion of Dr. Kennedy there is no doubt that our nervous systems are in some mysterious way connected with this universal agent, as it may be called, electricity."

feedingbaby.jpgArticles needed for baby's feeding [The Mother and Her Child]

Well, you can't prove they're not, can you? And what would it hurt to play it safe, just in case?

"Pregnant mothers should avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease; avoid injury, fright and disease of any kind." This was written in the 1920s, in a book called Searchlights on Health: The Science of Eugenics, by B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols. It's interesting to note that a remarkable number of parenting manuals from the era used the word "eugenics." This was before it had come to be mean, "something Hitler was really into." To them it had positive connotations, related to increasing the strength and qualities of the next generation, and less to do with stamping out the impurities of mankind for the propagation of the Master Race.

These books were written well into the scientific age, by men who claimed to possess scientifically collected knowledge. It shows how deeply bewildered and susceptible parents were as the world changed around them, and how tightly the old wives' tales still gripped people's minds. Who wanted to be the first to contradict them at the peril of their child?

Still, that sort of counsel represents the more fringe advice of the era. There might have been almost as many people rolling their eyes at it then as now. It was the advice they actually followed that is truly disturbing. So much so that you begin to wonder how anyone survived a 19th century childhood without emerging as a hardened sociopath.

From the day of birth, schedules and strict discipline were of deep importance. This baby was to interfere as little as possible with your life. Affection was to be restricted, with care instructions more fitting a ficus than a child. From 1916's The Mother and her Child by Drs. Lena and William Sadler: "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."

As the child grew, regulated contact could be tolerated. "At the age of two weeks, the child may be systematically carried about in the arms 2 to 3 times a day, as a means of furnishing additional change in position," is the precise advice of Dr. JP Crozer Griffith in 1900.

Even bowel movements were regimented. "Children under one year of age should have two movements of the bowels in the twenty-four hours, and those from one to three years at least one stool a day," wrote Napheys. Should the baby not conform to these healthy perimeters, the same books prescribed any number of enemas, draughts, and oils to make things more shipshape.

As for "crying it out," the advice of the early manuals was unanimous. A spoiled baby will be miserable its entire life, prone to hysterics and weakness, unable to cope with the life's hard turns. And the first and worst way to spoil a baby is to hold it when it cries. Per the Sadlers:

We run into many snags when we undertake to discipline the nervous baby. The first is that it will sometimes cry so hard that it will get black in the face and may even have a convulsion; occasionally a small blood vessel may be ruptured on some part of the body, usually the face. When you see the little one approaching this point, turn it over and administer a sound spanking and it will instantly catch its breath.

There comes a time in every parent's journey, when, after doing everything they can, they simply must close the door on a secured but screaming baby and walk away. Few make a habit of it, and fewer still would see their newborn's face turning black and convulsing with ruptured blood vessels as a "snag" worthy of a spanking.

Dr. Rima Apple is a professor emerita of human ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of Perfect motherhood: Science and childrearing in America . When I talked to Dr. Apple about the bizarre parenting practices of the past, one of the first things she asked me to do was stop using the word "stupid."

eugenicbaby.jpgSearchlights on Health

Because those parents, and those experts, they weren't stupid. Apple summed it up in a single sentence: "It made sense in their time."

According to the CDC, in the year 1900, 10 to 30 percent of all American babies born died before their first birthday. They died from things we don't think about. They died because their drinking water was too close to their sewers. Because the cow's milk they drank was unpasteurized. They died of measles and whooping cough and all the diseases that now cause four minutes of hard crying in a nurse's office and a Batman Band-Aid, instead of death. That was the time these writers, and the mothers they wrote for, lived in.

They were frightened.

They didn't know why their babies died, or screamed, or sickened; and they clung desperately to anyone who claimed to have the knowledge to prevent it.

"We're not smarter now," said Dr. Apple. "We simply have more information. More knowledge is only more detail, but it does not give us the complete answer."

"Why do you think mothers were told not to pick up their babies when they cried?" she asked me. As a mother myself, I have always been astounded by my ability to stop another human's suffering with only my arms, and could not fathom any mother feeling differently.

Yet my mind provided a wordless answer, a picture, almost immediately. A kitchen at the turn of the century, a heap of soiled clothes by a washboard, a dead chicken waiting to be scalded and plucked, countless other children bringing their chaos and noise to their mother, a husband plowing far out in the back forty and a grandmother who stayed back east.

Dr. Apple filled in the words. "If a mother had four kids to care for she couldn't pick them up every half hour. So the baby must learn to take care of itself. It was necessary for the time. They were taught not to be selfish."

Necessity mixed with fear and little solid information to quell it. This all added up to parenting practices that would drop the jaws of modern devotees of What to Expect When You're Expecting.

openair.pngThe Health-Care of the Baby

The books themselves, childcare manuals that bloomed in the 19th century and never let up, came into play for two reasons, according to Dr. Apple. First, the mid-1800s saw the rise of the male pediatrician and obstetrician. Never before in history had men of medicine taken an active interest in the care of common children and women. To establish themselves and prove that they were better than the lowly midwife, they wrote books, emblazoned with the powerful letters following their names. "MD, FRS, DCI." The reader may have no idea what those letters actually meant, but they were nonetheless comforted that the advice they were getting was expert.

The second reason was what Dr. Apple calls "mobility." You no longer lived your whole life in the same town that your forefathers had founded and died in. You moved for better work, you emigrated west; you set up homesteads in places where your nearest neighbor was 640 acres away. Your mother and aunties weren't around to advise you. At the same time, your family was smaller than it had ever been, meaning you were less likely to have seen others care for babies.

Dr. Apple's view that today we only have more details, not full answers, resonates. Parents are still all too aware of what they don't know. Fear still sells. The mortality rate of American babies today is infinitesimal compared to any other time in history. We no longer worry about diphtheria or a mother's argument with a neighbor poisoning her breast milk. So we find different things to worry about. Things that even the most exhaustively detailed books of yesteryear would never even have considered.

Should drop-side cribs be banned? Which chemicals might be seeping into my child's liver through the plastic in her sippy cup? What's worse for baby: formula feeding, or just directly feeding it lead paint chips?

Dr. Apple offers a calmer point of view. "I'm a historian, not a healthcare practitioner, but from my experience and readings, I would say that the basic rule would be 'everything in moderation.' Anything done to excess can be potentially harmful; for example the difference between a daily multivitamin and a mega-dose of vitamins."

There is one thing we tend to forget with our babies as we look down on them in their cribs, hoping the wispy rise and fall of their chests will continue even after we look away, and genuinely afraid that it won't. Babies want to live. They want to thrive. No matter what new wave in parenting washes over them, they adapt. In 100 years historians may be disgusted by our use of diapers, and click their tongues over our ignorance of subatomic particles as they relate to cognitive development. They will be around to judge our folly because they survived it, just as our grandparents survived the incomplete information their parents had.

I left with Eloise snuggled onto her mother's chest, sleeping in contentment. A safe child, whose parent's love is delivered in the fashion becoming the 21st century. Though it might be more gentle and attentive, it is no less a love than has ever come before.