Thursday, June 6, 2019

Baby Care in the 19th Century

by Kiersti Giron

Inspired by the recent birth of my own first baby--a little boy!--my last post took us on a journey into the past to learn what it was like to give birth in the 19th century. Today, we'll look at the next season of motherhood: what infant care was like during the 1800s, and how it changed during that century.
The Young Mother, by Mary Cassatt, 1900
Probably from a Art-CD2. The Athenaeum: Public Domain

Some major changes took place in how people viewed chlld-rearing during the 19th century. For one thing, childhood was seen as a special stage of life in a way it hadn't been before. Instead of just being seen as small adults, children were seen as unique and precious, and both childhood and motherhood were often idealized and treasured in Victorian culture. Babies were seen as innocent little "blank slates" who needed to be protected from evil, anger, and passion. 

As Lydia Child wrote in the 1831 Mother's Book,

"It is important that children, even when babes, should never be spectators of anger, or any real passion. They come to us from heaven, with their little souls full of innocence and peace; and as far as possible, a mother's influence should not interfere with the influence of angels." 

Not that a mother's influence wasn't important--Child urged mothers to take care of their own babies, rather than leaving it to servants, and gave advice such as this for day-to-day interaction with one's child:
The Mother, By Eastman Johnson, 1870.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Public Domain

"If in the same room, a smile or a look of fondness, should now and then be bestowed upon him, and if in an adjoining room, some of the endearing appellations to which he has been accustomed, should once in a while meet his ear. The knowledge that his natural protector and best friend is near, will give him a feeling of safety and protection, alike conducive to his happiness and beneficial to his temper."

By the end of the century, however, this emphasis on the closeness between mother and child began to change. Through the increased emphasis on science and behaviorism in the late 19th century and leading into the 20th, certain age-old, tried and true practices of mothering were called into question by "experts"--usually male doctors who often lacked impressive parenting credentials of their own. Still, because they had degrees and white coats, mothers frequently listened to them--often to the detriment of themselves and their babies. 

Rather than having their cries responded to, sleeping close to their parents, and being nursed when hungry, as had been the norm for caring for babies for millennia (and still is in most of the world), these new European and American "experts" told parents not to hold or touch their babies much, not to respond to their cries for fear of "spoiling" them, and to only interact with and feed their infants on a strict schedule, being governed by the clock rather than listening to their children and responding based on compassion and their own parental wisdom and intuition.  

Dr. Luther Emmette Holt, by Anonymous
Images from the History of Medicine (NLM) [1], Public Domain

The Care and Feeding of Children, by Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, first published in 1894, is often seen as a hallmark of this era of childcare advice. Holt doubtless had many good suggestions in terms of hygiene and such, but he also urged a strictly scheduled approach, advised against the kissing of babies, and emphasized leaving them to sleep alone (in contrast to books of the earlier 1800s, which encouraged mothers to keep their babies close at night) and, if a baby should cry at night, checking for basic warmth and safety and then leaving the baby to cry alone, if needed. Even playing with babies was discouraged, as Holt wrote in response to the question of "At what age may playing with babies be begun?"

"Never until four months, and better not until six months. The less of it at any time the better for the infant."

This trend continued into the 1900s, as evidenced in John Watson's 1928 Psychological Care of Infant and Child:

"There is a sensible way of treating children...Never hug and kiss them, never let them to sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when you say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning..."
Tintype of a seated infant, c. 1856 - 1900.
By Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane, No restrictions.

The climate at the time can be seen in L.M. Montgomery's last book of the Anne of Green Gables series, Rilla of Ingleside, when Anne's teenage daughter takes in a motherless baby and raises him according to a strict baby-care manual. At one point, though, Rilla rejects "Morgan's" advice in favor of her own instincts, and takes the crying infant into bed with her in the night to comfort and cuddle him. We can hope some real life mothers did the same thing too!

So, what do you think of Victorian infant-rearing practices? Which pieces of advice seem familiar today, and which surprise you? Please comment and share! 

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 and 2018 ACFW Genesis Awards - Historical for two of her novel manuscripts. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her husband, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.


  1. I love that picture of the mom nursing the baby! And I'm actually surprised that in that era, a picture like that would be painted. I thought they were all about modesty, although that scene is quite modest by today's standards. Isn't it strange (or maybe not) how even child-rearing experiences such swings in practice. Thanks for the post, and I hope you are enjoying your little one.

    1. That surprised me a bit too, Connie! And I love that picture also. Interestingly, I found several similar 19th century paintings as I searched. Made me think of how I've heard that in some Muslim cultures, while a woman might be covered head to toe, it is perfectly acceptable for her to nurse her baby in public. Thanks so much for sharing, and I definitely am enjoying my sweet little boy! :)

  2. Fascinating post! Thank you! Love to you and your little guy.

    1. Thank you so much, Susie! :)

  3. Yes, this is fascinating, but not surprising. A combination of both ends of the spectrum (moderation) sounds about right. Having a schedule, but showing our children love and affection. There are positive and negatives on both sides. Well done, Kiersti!

    1. We do tend to swing from one extreme to another, don't we? Thanks for sharing, Jarm!

  4. It's sad to think of so many babies left all day in their cribs with little interaction. I can't imagine not playing with a baby or cuddling it when it cried. It be interesting to know what became of those baby's that were mostly left alone.

    1. It is sad, isn't it, Vickie? And I agree, I wonder what happened to some of those children. I know research does show that early responsiveness, touch, and attachment definitely affect us later in life. Thanks for sharing and blessings!