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wore on, and hostility between the first Americans and immigrants grew, scientists and doctors dubbed native practices outdated and uncivilized.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.