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.”
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.