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The Barbarian’s Guide to Parenting

When it comes to childrearing advice, we’ve come a long way, baby.

Modern parenting isn’t easy. Childcare books and blogs are filled with so much contradictory advice, it makes you want to  throw your own tantrum. But there’s good news: You don’t live in centuries past, when  baby advice wasn’t merely contradictory; it was also bizarre and borderline criminal.

One popular suggestion of yesteryear: Put baby in the corner and leave it there (and yes, the baby was usually called “it”).  “Handle the baby as little as possible,” the 1916 book The Mother and Her Child advises. “Turn occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone; crying is absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs.” You wouldn’t want to spoil your infant with anything so barbaric as human touch!

An 1894 manual was also pro-neglect: Crying is “the baby’s exercise,” explained Dr. L. Emmett Holt. The good doctor advised against playing with the baby until it was 6 months old, as play was thought to cause nervousness and agitation.

Those cute little tots may look kissable, but in the past you’d be wise to keep your lips to yourself. “We most strongly protest against the haphazard, promiscuous kissing of babies,” intoned The Mother and Her Child. Kissing, after all, could transmit diseases—like syphilis. If you must pucker up, kiss the top of the head. (For more insanity, I recommend Ann Hulbert’s Raising America, which includes a lovely anti-hugging tirade from 1920s behaviorist John Watson.)

Instead of physical affection, parents of the past employed other soothing remedies: drugs and booze. Children’s medicine in the 19th century was often laced with opium, and the narcotic syrups were known by the creepy euphemism “quietness.” You could also get your kid stoned with opium-filled lozenges, or “treat” gassy babies with a few spoonfuls of gin. Thankfully, books like 1878’s Advice to a Mother warned against booze, instead recommending caraway tea to stop flatulence. (Unlike gin, it’s still used as a home remedy for windiness.)

Maybe your baby isn’t a fan of tea? Well, try a cup of joe instead! In a 1962 book, Dr. Walter Sackett advised parents to kick-start their infants’ days with black coffee beginning at 6 months. Sackett was a total moderate, though. He said “in small quantities at first.” For you wussy helicopter parents, Sackett points out that there’s always decaf.

In the middle ages, a colicky baby had a worse fate than being drugged. Parents often suspected the bawling tot was a “changeling”—that is, an evil fairy had replaced their real baby with a whiny impostor. The popular solution? Treat the impostor baby so horribly, the fairy would come and switch it back. According to Paul Newman’s book Growing Up in the Middle Ages, parents would lure the fairy by torturing the child, dipping it repeatedly in a river or abandoning it on a crossroad. (Note: This is not the same Paul Newman known for The Hustler and salad dressing.)

Being in the cradle was not much safer than being left in the intersection. Newman says almost one in three medieval infants died from burning cradles: “Sparks from the fire, animals such as pigs wandering into the house and tipping the cradle over, and just plain carelessness all contributed to these preventable deaths.”

With regard to toilet training, a U.S. government baby manual from 1932 says tots can start using the throne by the end of the first month, but certainly by the third. The mother should hold the baby “over the chamber, using a soap stick, if necessary, to start the movement.”

Breast-feeding women had a huge number of peculiar do’s and don’ts. Advice to a Mother has a special section on how to control your wet nurse, a common servant among the wealthy in the pre-formula age: They should take walks, avoid crowded rooms, and keep their minds “calm and unruffled, as nothing disorders the milk so much as passion, and other violent emotions of the mind.”

Such advice is enough to cause violent emotions. So go ahead and kiss your baby, enjoy a crowded party, and be thankful you weren’t a parent in the not-so-good old days. 


The article above by A.J. Jacobs is reprinted with permission from the March-April 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

See more about baby and kids at NeatoBambino

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That is a wildly inaccurate description of historical childrearing. Not only is it cherrypicking examples of horrible advice in order to support its own frankly biased thesis, it's also often incorrect. Obviously, it's nothing short of preposterous to claim that a third of all medieval infants "died from burning cradles". Infant mortality rates (percentage of children that died during their first 12 months) were much, much higher up until the late 1890's in the West, but that was mainly due to infectious disease parents and doctors were unable to prevent until the discovery of the bacteria + viruses that caused the diseases in the 1880's and 1890's, along with changes brought on by better sanitation. Sure, there were lots of ideas we wouldn't agree with today, especially if you go looking for "stupid stuff someone's said in the last 500 years", but there were a lot of good sense too. I'm sure I could compile a list like this just from my Facebook friends' ideas of childrearing, as long as I made sure to take things out of context, pretend a single data point is representative, and point at it and say 'look, they're all stupid!'
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