A Peek Into the Past: Touching Our Babies

Once upon a time, Miriam and I wrote a book. And in that book, we had over 400 pages of material. Our vision, however, was to give new and expecting moms a nursing companion–a book they could hold in one hand. So we snipped. And trimmed. And cut. It’s hard to say no to hundreds of hours of work, but thankfully, all’s not entirely lost. We’re bringing you some of our largest unseen sections from TOBB, in a series of blog posts.

A Peek into the Past” is a pithy round-up of our societal evolution of parenting practices, mostly in the U.S. You’ll learn about the history of birth, breastfeeding, potty training, co-sleeping and more–eight posts for our eight chapters. Enjoy, ask questions, and share with friends! ~Megan

Touch, Hold, Carry, Wear

Touch has long been instinctively understood by mothers as one of the most important baby care tools. Holding babies close with fabric or woven carriers, served the dual purpose of enabling moms to continue their daily work, and meeting babies’ needs for physical closeness. Baby carriers have likely been used since the beginning of time. Some of the earliest images come from Egypt during the rule of the Pharoahs.

In the U.S., there were two major styles of babywearing in the 1800s. Native Americans wore babies on their backs in cradleboard carriers made from wood or natural fibers, padded with animal fur or moss. European immigrants often used shawls, bedsheets, or traditional carriers from their native cultures. But as the century wore on, and hostility between the first Americans and immigrants grew, scientists and doctors dubbed native practices outdated and uncivilized. Not surprisingly, most European settlers shunned the practice of babywearing altogether. Intellectuals sought to create a “smarter,” more efficient way to raise babies.

The Demonization of Touch

In the late 1800s, American child-rearing literature began reflecting now-familiar fears of “spoiling” babies through physical touch and soothing. The first stage of attack was launched against the cradle, the nearly extinct cozy predecessor to the crib. Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, a man described as cold, efficient, and never having said “good morning” to his secretary, helped overthrow the practice of soothing through rocking by calling it an “unnecessary and vicious practice” in his bestselling guide The Care and Feeding of Children.

Times change, trends change. People used carriers, then cradles, then cribs. No problem, right? And yet the ideas that shaped these arms-length baby-rearing trends were actually dangerous. During the 1800s, more than half of American-born infants died before their first birthday, due to a disease called marasmus, which means “wasting away,” also known as infant atrophy. As the movement against “spoiling” babies through touch picked up speed, in the 1920s, almost 100% of institutionalized infants died before their first birthday. The implications? Without touch, babies were literally left to waste away. Sounds like the very definition of spoiling.

In 1915, a chilling report on children’s institutions in ten American cities revealed that in nine out of the ten institutions, every single infant under the age of two died. Seeking to slow this epidemic, Dr. Fritz Talbot of Boston visited a clinic with low death rates in pre-WWI Germany.

“The wards were very neat and tidy, but what piqued Dr. Talbot’s curiosity was the sight of a fat old woman who was carrying a very measly baby on her hip. ‘Who’s that?’ inquired Dr. Talbot. ‘Oh, that is Old Anna. When we have done everything we can medically for a baby, and it is still not doing well, we turn it over to Old Anna, and she is always successful.”[i]

Enter John Watson, the father of behavioral psychology, who sought to “condition and control the emotions of human subjects.”  (Watson, Muskingum 2004) For those whose babies made it past infancy, he shared some solemn parenting advice in his 1928 book ironically titled Psychological Care of Infant and Child:

“There is a sensible way of treating children… Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat of the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.”

As you might imagine, Watson had a poor relationship with his children. Despite his unchecked parenting credentials, Watson’s book was hailed as a “godsend” and a must-have for “intelligent” mothers. His work launched a major trend, as described in Touching.

“This … approach to child-rearing greatly influenced … pediatric thinking and practice. Pediatricians advised parents to maintain a sophisticated aloofness from their children, keeping them at arm’s length, and managing them on a schedule characterized by both objectivity and regularity. They were to be fed by the clock, not on demand, and only at definite and regular times. If they cried during the intervals of three or four hours between feedings, they were to be allowed to do so until the clock announced the next feeding time. During such intervals of crying they were not to be picked up, since if one yielded to such weak impulses the child would be spoiled, and thereafter every time he desired something he would cry. And so millions of mothers sat and cried along with their babies, and, as genuinely loving mothers obedient to the best thinking on the subject, bravely resisted the “animal impulse” to pick them up and comfort them in their arms. Most mothers felt that this could not be right, but who were they to argue with the authorities?”

In addition to cradles, which were “vicious” in their ease of calming babies, shawls and wraps used for babywearing went into serious decline around 1920, when relatively lightweight strollers were mass produced at a price most Western families could afford. As popular culture’s infant authorities advocated a movement away from “spoiling” babies with too much affection, strollers conveniently filled the niche of reducing babies’ time in arms.

As the 1960s counterculture movement took off, the return to a gentler, more compassionate form of parenting began. The next generation of white, male doctors stepped in as baby experts, espousing slightly more hands-on care methods. 

The Game Changer

Pediatrician Dr. William Sears, who coined the term “Attachment Parenting” and launched the associated movement in the 1980s, helped Westerners reclaim compassionate baby-rearing practices including responsive soothing, consistent holding and babywearing.

Meanwhile, Sears’ pediatric colleagues have made slow but steady movements toward more responsive parenting. It’s no longer taboo to pick up a crying baby during the day; however, many nighttime attitudes still reflect those of the late 1800s. As often happens, yesterday’s tools have been retranslated to suit modern concerns. Our societal fears of spoiling the baby have been repackaged to reflect today’s concerns for mom’s independence.

We’re all for independence. But during those early, crucial months, our babies literally teach us how to parent. So strapping your wee one to your chest instead of resting him at your feet in his carseat is a great way to keep your hands free and your loved one close. Touch is a gift, for baby and parent alike.

Want to read more? Check out The Other Baby Book on Kindle or in paperback. 

What do you think? Is it becoming more socially acceptable to keep in close physical contact with your baby, whether carrying in arms or in a carrier? Or are strollers, and baby “buckets,” like carseats, bouncy seats, and cribs more prevalent than ever?


[i] Montagu, Ashley. Touching. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

20 thoughts on “A Peek Into the Past: Touching Our Babies

  1. I don’t know if it’s just the “crunchy” circle that I’m in – but no one blinks an eye when I have my baby strapped to me in my Kozy… no one has ever blinked an eye at the grocery store either though 🙂

  2. I often put my baby in her Ergo and grocery shop. At least once i get stopped by an elderly women wishing that they would have had a ergo and how much easier it would have been.

  3. I remember my husband and I being very confused at the pediatrician’s office when she was talking to us about “now is the time to start getting her out of her carseat more during the day”. We didn’t say anything at the time, but instead shrugged our shoulders at the comment. Although our daughter hated to be wrapped, we still carried her almost everywhere and she finally loved the Boba right after her 1st birthday. We saw keeping her in her carseat as a form of torture. I wouldn’t like to be strapped in that thing more than while riding in the car…so why should she?

  4. Very often, my two month old son will cry uncontrollably. “He is colicky,” I’m often told. Whether or not this is true, part of my routine to help him stop crying is to strap him on, either using one of my homemade wrap carriers or our Ergo with the infant insert. He is without fail happiest when he is attached to me. It soothes his crying within minutes and he falls into a peaceful sleep, even if he seems to have been in pain. The idea of not doing this, or worse yet, not touching him, seems insane to me! How can a mother not hold her baby or keep him close? Not only is he happier, but I am too.

    1. My daughter was the same way, Janet. Way to go following your instincts! It can seem like a no-brainier, but I do know many moms who hear a litany of voices from doctors to mother-in-laws to friends warning not to spoil! The pressure can be intense! ~Megan

  5. I am ever so used to seeing babies strapped on. I live in Rwanda, and in this culture, the baby is always wrapped on their back with fabric. I also know the effects of a baby not being held close, as I am passionate about the orphanage a hop n skip from my house with over 700 children, who are all desperate for love, and touch. (Ever wipe a kids nose and have 40 of em line up to get theirs wiped as well to feel taken care of?) It blows my mind that some children who have loving parents, will grow up with similar issues as the kids who live in a overcrowded orphanage down the street. Touch, looking into eyes, mimicking, all that is so important. I love and hate that baby Moses who I met in April, at 3 weeks old, you can tell him apart from the dozens of other babies. When I met him, I went to hold him a hour everyday at least. Gaze into his sweet eyes, and pray over him. When I go into that cramped infant room, Moses will coo, make eye contact, and is not too far behind developmentally. Other babies will turn their gaze away immediately if you try to make eye contact, stare blankly if you try to get them to mimic you. Hold those babies close, you cannot spoil a infant. They could care less about a nicely decorated nursery, or even clothes without holes and stains. They could care less if you got the best car seat, or painted a mural on their walls. All they know, is they feel safe when you hold them close. They feel secure. They know their most basic needs to be feed, loved, and have security.

    1. That is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Thanks for writing such a poignant illustration of why touch is so important.

  6. What the heck does “white male” have to do with anything? That’s where you lose a lot of credibility with the less-than-hippie types like myself who still practice AP. Let’s take race out of this and focus on loving and caring for the future generations.

  7. It makes me physically ill reading some of that. How can you not hold a baby or touch them being a parent ? Why the hell would you give birth to a child only to let it lay there and cry. Repulsive. Times have changed a lot for the better too. I have 2 children whom I kiss snuggle a hundred times a day. They will not be spoiled because of that. They will have a feeling of well being and love. Shame on parents who think otherwise. Babies r so very innocent.

  8. Another thing left out of this article, is mothers leaving their babies all day so they can go to work. Mothers of young children are supposed to be with them and BE THERE to nurture and “spoil” them. I babysit, and it is so heartbreaking to watch, every morning, these children cry out and cling to their parent not to leave. It is obviously unnatural to leave your child all day with someone. Although I try to do my best at comforting them, I will never be able to, because I am not the Parent!! The child is usually calmed down once the parent is out of sight, but this is proof we shouldn’t be leaving them so much!
    I know our culture doesn’t support mothers staying at home. I will probably get some comments saying that mothers HAVE to work to help support the family. And I believe in some circumstances it is necessary. But all in all, if we would live a frugal, modest lifestyle while our children are young, it is possible to be there for them in these critical, beautiful years!

    1. Donna, I 100% agree with you! I see a dramatic difference in babies left with others during the day vs babies that are with their mommies. You brought up a great point!

      1. Does it necessarily have to be the mother that stays with the baby? My husband is a SAHD because I am the higher wage earner and have health insurance through my employer. I may not be with my baby during the day, but she’s with her father. Everyone who meets her says that she is just the happiest baby.

        1. I think that as long as it is an invested caregiver that will promptly meet the baby/child’s needs for love, trust, safety, and food that is alright. If Babies and kids learn that their voices and needs are important, by having a caregiver that responds to them and comforts them they will learn compassion and empathy (instead of hostility, anger, and frustration). I think it is great for babies and kiddos to have multiple caregivers in addition to the mother and the father. My husband works from home and my baby loves to spend time with him. My baby also enjoys time with friends of the family but I make sure that they understand that a baby cries because she/he has a need, not because that’s what babies ‘do’. I focus on that because that’s the point of development that my baby is at, in a few years as a toddler, I’d focus on the importance of other communication tools.

          Perhaps there were other contributing factors to the relationship that the babysitter describes that is the source of the children’s expression at that time of separation. I would look into the attachment style that had developed between the parents and the child before assuming that the main reason the child is upset is simply because “mom is going to work”. Perhaps accompanying mom on day at work would help the kid understand where mom goes all day and settle the fears of where mom leaves to. Sometimes “work” can be an abstract concept for a child and once a kid can see and experience where “mom goes all day” the worry disappears. However, it depends on each kid and each parent to look into the issue and find out the root of it, instead of just letting it become the daily ritual pulling the heart strings of parents and paid caretakers alike. I know it is not fun for anyone, especially not the children. They don’t engage in that type of behaviour because it’s enjoyable, they express those emotions because they need to, so look into what is the need they are expressing?

  9. I get that you’re passionate about all this. But inferring that babies were dying from lack of touch is absurd. Malnutrition is not from not being held, so maybe ease up on the hyperbole.
    There are many acceptable ways to parent, and whatever works for your family is best. Not all kids are meant to participate in all the touchy-feely lifestyle either. I know I would have HATED it as a child. At least as an adult I can opt out.

    1. There is a great deal of cognitive development that happens while a baby is young that is necessary for it to thrive. Food is not the only thing that cause a baby to develop. There is massive amounts of research that support the importance of touch and neural development. THAT is why this is such an important issue. it’s not about being natural touchy feely or cuddly, ITS THE WAY HUMANS DEVELOP. We are social creatures. If babies are left alone without contact how are they supposed to learn what it means to be human? If the brain doesn’t develop properly and it is a main center of communication in the body how then can the rest of the body develop and function properly???? As a child grows older it is totally fine to develop preferences on how much touch is desired, but that is for the child to decide and be allowed to set those boundaries once it can define those preferences. An INFANT needs to be taken care of and loved so that it can develop. After birth, a child’s brain grows as much in the first year as it will grow during the rest of life.
      Go read about it in ANY current scholarly journal on fetal or infant development and it will be smattered with those important things.

      I am in the mental health field with a specialty in infant and child mental health.

    2. But babies and children actually require touch for their brains to develop properly, not just food…it’s not an option. Babies can and will die if they are not held and touched.

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