Parenting advice through the ages

Some child-rearing tips from the past are not necessarily bad, just strange to contemporary eyes.
Some child-rearing tips from the past are not necessarily bad, just strange to contemporary eyes. Photo: Ted Golding

In the annals of bad baby advice, a dubious prize goes to Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl, who provoked outrage last year when it came to light that a book he had written with his wife, To Train Up a Child, was allegedly linked to the deaths of three children by abuse and neglect.

An advocate of training children the way one might "stubborn mules", Pearl recommends eliminating the "selfish compulsion". In a less violent vein, according to this recent video clip, he also believes that devoted mothers can potty-train their infants by the time they are two weeks old.

Inspired by Pearl, I decided to survey the worst advice given to parents, going back to the 1700s.

What stands out most in these books is the chiding tone espoused by the mostly male physicians writing them. From the 1700s until the mid-20th century - when Benjamin Spock advocated a gentler, instinct-based approach in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care - science was often positioned in opposition to motherly instinct, and mothers were repeatedly criticised for being "anxious, well-meaning, but ignorant", as one 1916 book put it. Here are some choice examples:

A spoiled baby is a socialist baby

At 10 days, they could have strained vegetables, and by nine weeks, the little one would be eating 'bacon and eggs, just like Dad!'

Before Spock's 1946 book, a strict approach dominated baby advice books. Experts advised mothers to keep infants on schedules for feeding and sleeping; holding them just for the sake of it was considered a sure way to produce what a 1911 text termed a "little tyrant". 

A 1916 book warned parents not to bounce babies on their knees, as it would spoil babies and lead to "wrecked nerves". In general, wrote physician L. Emmett Holt in 1894, playing with babies was a bad idea: "Never until four months, and better not until six months."

As late as 1962, a Miami paediatrician named Walter W. Sackett Jnr came out with a book called Bringing Up Babies, in which he implied that parents who failed to impose strict schedules on their babies were downright unpatriotic. Absolutely no night feedings, he wrote, no matter how young the baby, nor how much it cried.

"If we teach our offspring to expect everything to be provided on demand, we must admit the possibility that we are sowing the seeds of socialism," he warned.


Don't poison the baby with angry breast milk

Several advice books suggested that mothers could harm their babies by thinking the wrong sorts of thoughts. The Sadlers, husband-and-wife doctors who collected their wisdom in 1916, blamed "angry" mothers for causing their babies' colic. Mothers could also run dry by engaging in "worry, grief, or nagging," they wrote.

In his 1877 book Advice to a Wife, Chavasse informed mothers not to nurse for too long. Once the baby was past nine months, nursing could cause "brain disease" in babies and blindness in mothers.

Watch out for the wet nurse (and baby nurse, and washerwoman ...)

By the turn of the 20th century, infant care manuals had become "staples in the middle-class American nursery", and the women reading them were informed that the lower-class women helping with their childcare brought all manner of diseases and bad habits into their homes.

"Mothers cannot be too watchful of nursemaids," advised Mrs Max West, the author of a 1914 US government pamphlet, writing that these "vicious" women might leave babies in wet nappies or feed them candy.

Meanwhile, washerwomen were apt to wash a baby's clothes in corrosive "soda" then deny doing it, Chavasse observed in 1878.

Wet nurses were most suspicious of all. Some of this is understandable, as it was feared they could transmit such diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis to their newborn charges. But many other warnings communicated the class tensions inherent in such hires: The Mother and Her Child advised against hiring single mothers, and if a woman had more than one illegitimate child she was apt to be "mentally deficient".

Chavasse's book advised that parents inspect the wet nurse's nipples (they had to be "sufficiently long"), and make sure she didn't "menstruate during suckling", or eat pastries and gravies, both of which would harm the milk. 

Lard baths

Several advice books around the turn of the century advised that newborns be "well smeared" in lard, olive oil or "fresh butter". "Some kind of grease is needed" for the removal of the waxy vernix coating babies are born with, explained one book. After a week of daily oilings, mothers could move on to soap and water.

Start solids at two days old

After World War II, commercial baby food producers and doctors drastically lowered the age at which they recommended babies start solids.

Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the average age at which parents introduced solids plummeted from seven months to four to six weeks, according to various surveys.

Sackett, the man who feared the rise of socialist babies, wrote in 1962 that breast milk and formula were "deficient", and therefore babies should be started on cereal at two days of age. At 10 days, they could have strained vegetables, and by nine weeks, the little one would be eating "bacon and eggs, just like Dad!"

Sackett also recommended giving babies black coffee starting at six months, to get them used to "the normal eating habits of the family".