They say it takes a village to raise a child. In the past, that village had some really strange ideas about child rearing. From taping the mouth closed to drugging babies to 'cure' colic, the world of parenting has historically been trial and error!
Even in the darkest of midnight tantrums it’s a small comfort to know that with the glories of modern medicine and the 20/20 of hindsight, we know these ideas are quite frowned upon.
Robin Barker has seen many a parenting 'trend' in her day, and even some long before she was around. She’s positive some family fads that should never see the light of day again.
Listen to Robin on Kinderling Conversation:
While it’s still quite a contentious topic today, it might pain you to know that swaddling - in the modern sense - has some pretty on-the-nose foundations.
As far as we know the first mentions of swaddling are way back in years beyond comprehension (around 4000 years ago) around Crete and Cyprus. The Bible popularised it again with the whole baby-in-a-manger, no-room-at-the-inn thing. Very practical for the new mum on the go.
During Tudor times (the very peaceful and not at all murderous reign of a certain King Henry and his many disappearing wives) babies were swaddled from head to hoof to ensure bub would grow up without physical deformity. While most people of the time were physically fine, history gives no mention of whether or not generations of Tudor people suffered severe claustrophobia as a result.
Robin recounts a period in the 17th century when swaddling started to fall out of favour. Suddenly, men that ruled the roost believed a swaddled baby meant the mother was less attached to her child. You see, a swaddled baby wasn’t likely to crawl around demanding constant supervision. With swaddled bubs, women were free to have house cleaning parties and cook all day, and the intellectuals of the time were not having a Bar. Of. That. A woman’s duty was to make, care for, and ensure the staying alive of future generations at all times!
If you think that sounds rough, take a look at what Jacques Russoue wrote in his book On Education about the swaddle;
“Whence comes this unreasonable custom? From an unnatural practice. Since mothers despise their primary duty and do not wish to nurse their own children, they have had to entrust them to mercenary women. These women thus become mothers to a stranger's children, who by nature mean so little to them that they seek only to spare themselves trouble. A child unswaddled would need constant watching; well swaddled it is cast into a corner and its cries are ignored.”
You think teething at your place is bad? Try living in the 18th century. Robin says that poor nutrition lead to a wave of infant scurvy (a disease caused by the lack of Vitamin C); a symptom of which is swollen gums.
Physicians and parents saw these swollen gums and immediately assumed teething problems. Off to ye olde butcher-who-doubled-as-the-town-dentist to lance bubs gums and either douse the sore area in laudanum (just a really easy going sedative similar to morphine) or to remove the teeth altogether. Side effects were more often than not a lot of screaming and also death.
It’s a miracle really that we managed to populate the earth as plentifully as we have…
Diphtheria and Colic
Not just something that horses or sailors contract, Diphtheria (communicable bacterial disease) used to be treated by sending the patient out into the sun, turn their head to the sky and simply open their mouth. Due to suns powerful magic healing powers the patient was cured instantly! Instantly in this case meaning never.
Except that almost definitely wasn’t the case and Robin recounts that her father, who fought in World War II, almost definitely preferred being in the middle of a war zone to undergoing treatment for diphtheria in the 1930s and 40s.
As for Colic, it was originally treated with alcohol and morphine. It was pretty effective at stopping a sick childs painful wailing... Because they were unconscious.
Robin’s advice for any parent staring down the barrel of a colic diagnosis to be wary of anyone saying they have a fantastical cure for it. Historically anyone who proclaimed to have a treatment from colic is almost certainly selling a product that has a sedative in it. This will stop the crying which is great, but the crying will stop because your child is unconscious so, perhaps not the best idea, you know?
Got yourself a child who has the audacity to breathe through its mouth while sleeping? Never fear! Robin says it used to be believed that sleeping with an open mouth would lead to infected tonsils.
As such, parents (let’s be honest, mothers) were encouraged to tip-toe into their babies’ room at night. If their child was found to be breathing through their mouth, you had simply to close their mouth and prop it shut with a napkin, much like one would prop open a door on a hot day, except with increased risk of infant mortality. No infected tonsils though, so hurray!
Is your child’s complexion a little pale? Try popping some vegemite in their formula! That’s what Robin’s mother did for her sister and she swore that her sister had better skin than Robin.
But Robin also said all these things while fighting through almost uproarious laughter so perhaps take this advice with a grain of salty Vegemite.
You know ‘em and either you hate ‘em or love ‘em, but conflicting advice and parenting styles are as synonymous with families as nits are with preschool. Helicopter, Attachment, Detachment, Night Time, Free Range and Lawn Mower. So far Absent hasn’t made it into the list but historically that one was probably a given at some point or another.
Robin believes that little bits of all these different styles is probably the best outcome (excepting Absent for obvious reasons).
After all this craziness, remember that batty ideas have been pegged at mothers throughout all of history, so it’s probably not going to stop now. The best thing we can do is get a good pair of catcher’s gloves to throw obviously silly ideas right back to the historically baffling whirlpool of trial and error that they came from.
And most importantly - don't be so hard on yourself and go with your gut!
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