The Insane Reason an Ancient Greek Physician Told Everyone Not to Carry Around Their Baby Boys

How Babies Work
Emergent Thinking About Emergent Humans
March 28 2013 8:30 AM

The Insane Reason an Ancient Greek Physician Told Everyone Not to Carry Around Their Baby Boys

the third smallest baby born in the world.
Preeme Melinda Star Guido is picked up by her mother Haydee Ibarra as her father Yovani Guido looks on. Sure, today we hold and carry our babies, but it wasn't always so.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Whether babies should or should not be carried does not seem like an especially tricky question. (Sample answer: Why not? Seems to work!) It does not seem like a subject that people could spent millennia coming to radically different conclusions about. But they have!

These days, the newer the baby, the more likely we are to carry it. (For good reason.) But the ancient Greek physician Soranus thought that babies, especially boys, should not be carried until four months of age. Carrying posed the risk of severe testicular injury, Soranus thought. Today we worry about raising children who aren’t well-adjusted; the Greeks worried about raising children who weren’t eunuchs. This bias against carrying held through medieval times, apparently.


Meanwhile, at the same time Soranus pronounced this, the many hunter-and-gatherer societies south of him in Africa were obliviously carrying their infants. They’d never done anything but carry their infants. There is some logic here; the anthropologist John Whiting established that infants in cold climates are more likely to be swaddled and put down in a cradle, while those in hot climates are more likely to be carried in a sling. But once we could control the temperature indoors, we had no clue what to do: In this country, for the first half of the 20th century, the medical consensus was something like, “Carry your child? Why are you even touching your child?” (I exaggerate only slightly; this was an era when experts were telling parents not to kiss their babies.) The sudden popularity of slings, beginning in the 1970s, was a radical reversal. It pulped decades of childrearing wisdom. 

If you take the long view—the really, really long view—all this indecision dates back to a pivot point in human development. As I write in Baby Meets World, our hominid ancestors carried their infants without trying—that was the advantage of hairy bodies and an opposable toe. When they lost both, they squandered an extremely efficient method of child care. Suddenly, parents had to think about what to do with this helpless creature. (Those parents were pretty clever: They invented slings.) In a sense, the search for a decent daycare began with the moment, millions of years ago, that those hominid infants no longer stuck to their parents.

It’s always tempting to see the present as the final point in a journey—that we have corrected the mistakes of the past. We now understand that babies have basic socio-emotional needs; we let ourselves pick up our babies; we carry them when they want to be carried. But answers to the most basic childrearing questions tend to see-saw wildly: Chances are that in the far future, someone will read about your Ergo with abject horror.

Whether they will assume that the Ergo turned all baby boys into eunuchs—that’s another question entirely.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, will be published in April. His website is

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.



The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?


Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.