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’d 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” of 6-month-old babies by striking them with wooden spoons or “flexible tubing.” 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’re 2 weeks old.
Inspired by Pearl (and the tale of a 1960s Miami pediatrician who believed in feeding solids to newborns; more about that below), 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 Dr. Benjamin Spock advocated a gentler, instinct-based approach to parenting in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, science was often positioned in opposition to motherly instinct, and mothers were repeatedly criticized for being “anxious, well-meaning, but ignorant,” as one 1916 book put it. Of course, it was often the so-called experts who were ignorant. Scottish physician William Buchan’s 1804 book Advice to Mothers informed them that “in all cases of dwarfishness or deformity, ninety-nine out of a hundred are owing to the folly, misconduct or neglect of mothers.”
Some of the tips -- like infant lard baths -- are not necessarily bad, just strange to contemporary eyes. And some are remarkable only for the fact that they were necessary. An 1878 book called Advice to Mother informed said mother that she should not give her baby gin to relieve flatulence. A 1749 essay by a physician advised changing infants’ clothing frequently because clean clothes didn’t, in fact, “rob them of their nourishing Juices.” Here are the other choice examples:
A Spoiled Baby Is a Socialist Baby 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.” As the U.S. Department of Labor observed in an “Infant Care” pamphlet in 1929, “a baby should learn that such habitual crying will only cause his parents to ignore him.”
Under the behaviorist thinking pioneered by psychologist John B. Watson and others, spoiling a baby was an immoral act that could forever curdle a child’s character. Watson advised parents “never” to “hug and kiss” their children. 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, well after Spock’s kinder, gentler approach had become a staple of nightstands across the country, a Miami pediatrician named Walter W. Sackett Jr. 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,” Sackett warned, likening overindulgent parents to Hitler and Stalin.
Toilet Train Your Newborns If there is one pervasive theme in baby advice books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is a preoccupation with the bowels. Much of it traces to concern over diarrhea-causing infections that killed many infants, though “sluggish bowels” were also a concern. “If we lock up the bowels, we confine the enemy and thus produce mischief,” British doctor Pye Henry Chavasse warned in 1878.
The daily drudgery of cleaning dirty cloth diapers may have been part of the impetus for recommendations to toilet train newborns, but experts often added a moral component. In 1935, a U.S. Department of Labor “Infant Care” pamphlet called an infant’s regulation of his bowels and bladder a key part of his “character building.” Mothers were instructed to start bowel training their babies at 2 months of age, holding the baby over the “chamber” at the precise same time each day, and “using a soap stick, if necessary” to provoke a movement. By 6 to 8 months, the pamphlet predicted, the baby would be trained, and by 10 months, parents could start in on bladder training. As an added benefit to the mother’s cleaning chores, said infant “will begin to learn that he is part of a world bigger than that of his own desires.”
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 9 months of age, 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,” medical historian Howard Markel observes, and the women reading them were informed that the lower-class women helping with their child care brought all manner of diseases and bad habits into their homes.
“Mothers cannot be too watchful of nursemaids,” advised a “Mrs. Max West,” the author of a 1914 U.S. government pamphlet, writing that these “vicious” women might leave babies in wet diapers or feed them candy. One 1916 book, The Mother and Her Child, went so far as to suggest that nurses shouldn’t expect too much pay, since they were getting something “money cannot buy” by being permitted to live in the edifying environment of an upper-class home. Meanwhile, washerwomen were apt to wash a baby’s clothes in corrosive “soda” and deny it, Chavasse observed in 1878.
Wet nurses were most suspicious of all. Some of this is understandable, as it was feared they could transmit diseases like 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; 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. He mandated the wet nurse’s 10 p.m. bedtime. Last, he suggested prospective employers have the wet nurse milk her product into a glass so parents could ascertain that it was bluish-white in color, and “sweet to the taste.”
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 2 Days Old After World War II, commercial baby food producers as well as pediatricians drastically lowered the age at which they recommended babies start solids. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, much to the delight of Gerber and Beech-Nut, the average age at which parents introduced solids plummeted from 7 months to four to 6 weeks, according to various surveys. Sackett, the same guy who feared insufficient strictness would lead to socialist babies, was at the leading edge of this trend, writing in 1962 that breast milk and formula were “deficient,” and therefore babies should be started on cereal at 2 days of age. At 10 days, they could have strained vegetables, and by 9 weeks old, the little one would be eating “bacon and eggs, just like Dad!” Sackett also recommended giving babies black coffee starting at 6 months of age, to get them used to “the normal eating habits of the family.”
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These days, we know more about the basics of infant nutrition and medical care, and don’t waste time worrying about angry, brain-maiming breast milk. But we do fixate on matters of style (attachment parenting or cry-it-out from the nursery?), as well as the finer details of infant care (solids at 4 months or 6)? We also know that there are many matters for which we will probably never have definitive scientific answers. As historian Markel pointed out to me, there are ethical problems with experimental trials on babies, and besides, there’s not much money to be gained in testing, for instance, whether babies should be rocked or ignored in the middle of the night. If “there’s no drug, no procedure” being tested, Markel says, there’s “not likely to be funding.”
If it’s any consolation, surveying the fads of past advice can give you some perspective on contemporary ones. There may never be a baby book that offers the conclusive answer to every question, but it’s possible to extract some wisdom from the suffering of past generations of parents. Does the book you’re reading contradict itself repeatedly, require you to override all your parental instincts, or send you into a panic over your own inadequacy? If so, burn it.