Baby “Experts” You Should Definitely Ignore

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 23 2012 7:00 AM

The Worst Baby Advice Ever

Smear your baby in lard! Feed the infant bacon and eggs!

New York 1898.
New York 1898

Illustration from Sporting Life/Cecil Raleigh and Seymour Hicks/Library of Congress.

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.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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:

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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.

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