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Putting babies to sleep on their stomachs

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Parenting guru Benjamin Spock did a lot right. However, subsequent medical evidence has demonstrated that his advice to “put baby to sleep on her stomach” was ill-advised. True, many babies do sleep better on their tummies. Unfortunately, the rate of cot death is also much higher among this group.

Not traveling during pregnancy

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Not so long ago it was usual for expectant moms to stay close to home, especially as a pregnancy advanced. Long-distance and, certainly, international travel was frowned on – by doctors, family members, and wider society. Nowadays, although airlines continue to restrict travel as due date approaches, we’re more enlightened and recognize that blanket travel bans are unnecessary.

Spare the rod spoil the child

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In the twenty-first century, it’s rare for parents or schools to use physical discipline on their kids. Indeed, in many countries it’s actually illegal to do so. However, this wasn’t always the case. For centuries, parents and wider society held the belief that withholding physical chastisement was bad for a child’s long-term development.

Excluding dads from the delivery room

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Even into the 1970s, it was common for expectant fathers to be excluded from the delivery room. An expectant mom would usually labor with only the support of medical professionals and perhaps a female relative or friend. Nowadays, we recognize that most women want the support of their partner during labor – and most men want to see the birth of their child.

Not picking up a crying baby

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In the early decades of the twentieth century, parenting advice – often stemming from edicts issued by middle-aged male medics – was clear that a baby that wasn’t due a feed, didn’t have a wet diaper, and wasn’t too cold or hot, should be left to cry. It was thought that picking up a baby just to comfort it would somehow “spoil” it and make it emotionally over-needy as it grew.

Giving solid food to newborns

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Advice on when and how to wean babies has never remained consistent. However, the advice to give solid food – usually in the form of baby rice, added to a bottle – to newborns is eyebrow-raising. Not only does a baby of that age need only milk, there’s good evidence to suggest that introducing solids too early negatively affects the gut and the body’s immune response.

Adding brandy to bottles

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A crying baby, especially one that wails on and on for hours, is very difficult to deal with. Nowadays, we resort to tag-teaming between parents, white noise, middle of the night drives around the neighborhood, and swing seats. However, back in the twentieth century, many parents followed advice to add a nip of brandy to their baby’s bottle. It often worked but can’t have been good for the child!

Rationing affection

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In the twenty-first century, empathetic parenting is all the rage in many circles. The idea of not hugging your kid or somehow rationing the affection you show them is anathema. However, dial back 100 years or so, and this was very common – particularly, although not exclusively, among fathers.

Over-emphasizing posture

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Have you ever laughed at a picture of a girl walking around a room with a book balanced on her head? This exercise was part of a wider over-emphasis on posture among children and young people. Kids were nagged to sit up straight, enrolled in posture courses and even fitted with braces to correct perceived postural defects.

Drinking during pregnancy

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In the twenty-first century, medical advice is clear: do not drink alcohol during pregnancy. However, things were very different in the twentieth century. Not only did many women continue to indulge in a drink or two, medical advice frequently encouraged it. For instance, in Great Britain and Ireland, doctors regularly advised anaemic pregnant women to drink iron-rich Guinness.

Insisting on clean plates

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“Think of the starving children in Africa…..” There can’t be many people raised in Western society in the twentieth century who didn’t hear this pass their parents’ lips at least once. However, the insistence on clean plates is now less widely adhered to, partly due to more permissive parenting styles and partly from a recognition that it’s unhelpful in relation to eating disorders.

Smoking during pregnancy

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Another “normal” for the twentieth century that baffles us now, smoking was widespread among pregnant women, at least for the first three-quarters of the last century. This largely reflected higher smoking levels in society as a whole and, at least in the early decades of the century, ignorance over the effects of smoking on both the woman and her developing baby.

Baby cages

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In the 1920s, when tuberculosis was still rife, an emphasis on the protective powers of fresh air led to the development of baby cages. Not a playpen, a baby cage was a wire cage suspended outside a window. They were a common sight in large cities, particularly London in the UK but also across the Atlantic in New York.

Exposing kids to secondhand smoke

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The repercussions of the lack of knowledge about the dangers of tobacco smoke extended beyond smokers themselves. Smoking around babies and young children was common and continued even after the health risks of smoking became widely known. It was only when passive smoking was highlighted as a danger that the exposure of kids to secondhand smoke became less common.

Not insisting on seatbelts

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Seatbelts haven’t always been a legal requirement – even for children. Most people who grew up in the 60s and 70s have memories of half a dozen kids cramming into the back seat of a station wagon, with not a seatbelt in sight. Significantly, once seatbelts became mandatory, the number of childhood deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents dropped significantly.

Not using car seats

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As well as insisting on seatbelts for older kids (and adults), today’s babies and small children use car seats – and, in most countries, are required to by law. Interestingly, car seats aren’t a particularly new conception. They were originally conceived as a way to ensure that a driver had somewhere to put a very young child.

Seen and not heard

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Although some very strict parents doubtless still adhere to this mantra today, most twenty-first century moms and dads are interested in what their children have to say and don’t expect silence at all times. However, for many kids growing up in the early part of the twentieth century (and earlier), this was the norm.

Forcing lefthanders to write with their right

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Child development has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few decades. However, even as recently as the 1980s, some natural left-handers were forced to learn to write with their right hand. Some children experienced their left hand being tied behind their back to ensure they used the “right” hand.

Bed-wetting as a mental illness

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We can thank Freud for this one. Psychoanalytic theories stemming from the famed man ensured that “Does your child wet the bed?” was a routine question in many medical consultations. If the answer was “yes”, the child was potentially deemed at risk from mental illness and even sociopathy.

Feeding coffee to babies

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A pediatrician and authoritarian parenting “guru” from the 1960s, Walter W. Sackett. Jr., had plenty to say on the subject of weaning. As well as advocating solid food from two days’ old, bacon and eggs and six months, he recommended coffee as a suitable drink for six month old babies.

Frightening kids into good behavior

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The AIDs adverts of the 1980s and the “stranger danger” publication information movies of a similar vintage are a good example of how twentieth century kids were frightened – or, at least, so their parents hoped – into behaving in a certain way. There was less room for explanation or discussion; instead, it was presumed that a kid who was sufficiently frightened of a particular event would behave in a way so as to avoid it.

No health and safety

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Some may argue with all our risk assessments we’ve now gone too far in the opposite direction. However, those of us who were kids in the twentieth century century probably remember riding our bikes without safety helmets and our skateboards without knee pads. We might even have gone horseback riding without a riding cap.

Separate rooms

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Nowadays, it’s normal – and usually recommended – for a baby to share a room with its parents until around six months of age as this is the age at which the risk of cot death starts to drop. However, for most of the twentieth century, it was common for babies to sleep in their own rooms from birth. Perhaps the parents slept better but the baby was at higher risk of death and, moreover, babies often sleep better when in close proximity to their moms.

Insisting on hugs and kisses

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As a general rule, in the twentieth century, there was much less acceptance of a child’s right to bodily autonomy. At its worst, this allowed pedophiles to operate with relative impunity. However, it also meant that generations of kids were forced to accept the kisses and hugs of relatives and other people that they’d really rather have kept at arm’s length.

Baby Einstein

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In many ways the precursor to today’s test prep classes, the Baby Einstein childhood education videos that first appeared in the 1990s were intended to make a very young child smarter. The videos are still around today, despite mounting medical and psychological evidence that early exposure to screens delays a child’s development.

Putting children to work

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In industrialised Western countries, child labor laws have evolved considerably over the last hundred years or so. However, at the start of the twentieth century it was common for the children of poorer families to work alongside adults. Working hours were frequently long and work often conducted in dangerous and insanitary conditions.

Thinking beautiful thoughts

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Moms are often unfairly blamed for whatever goes wrong with their children. In the early part of the twentieth century, this even extended to blaming them for having an unattractive baby. And, no, those passing criticism weren’t suggesting that the baby had inherited the mom’s own sub-standard looks. Instead, they were suggesting that the mom had “thought ugly thoughts” whilst pregnant…..

Making older kids look after younger ones

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It doubtless still happens to some extent even in the twenty-first century. However, making older kids look after younger ones – and frequently for whole days and nights at a time – was common in the previous century. In the absence of suitable or affordable childcare alternatives, it was frequently necessary to enable the parents to work.

Bathing in lard

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In the early 1900s, experts recommended that a baby’s first bath should be with lard. The reasoning behind this repulsive suggestion was because lard was thought the best way of removing the vernix – a cheesy, or wax-like substance – that frequently covers a newborn’s skin. It’s not known whether babies born without vernix managed to escape this ordeal!

Feeding schedules

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Many of today’s parents “feed when baby is hungry”. For most of the twentieth century, however, new moms were urged to stick to a rigid feeding schedule. Frequently four-hourly, it took no account of a premature, very small or jaundiced baby who might have needed more regular feeds. It also advocated waking a baby for a feed – something few of today’s parents would consider doing.

Ignoring children

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In the polar opposite of today’s helicopter parenting trend, kids from the last century, especially the early part, were often ignored. From their parents’ point of view, this was for their own good. Ignoring kids was thought to increase self-sufficiency and resourcefulness, leading to a more independent and better-adjusted adult.

No baby-proofing

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Today’s expectant parents usually spend considerable time and often a fair amount of money on baby-proofing their home. Older relatives expecting a new baby in the family often do the same. However, for much of the twentieth century, kids were merely reminded not to stick their fingers in a socket and were expected to leave ornaments alone.

Using capsicum to curb thumb sucking

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Today’s parents might still struggle to stop a child sucking their thumb. However, it’s a fair bet that a twenty-first century parent wouldn’t consider using a solution of nail polish, acetone and – yes – capsicum to paint on their child’s thumb. It probably worked but at what cost to the child is unclear….


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Nowadays, we frequently give our kids vitamin gummies and omega-3 tablets. Parents in the twentieth century were just as keen on supplements but they frequently took a less appealing form. Cod liver oil was popular and probably universally reviled. Malt was slightly better. And then, still wildly unappealing if less a supplement than a food, there was liver soup.

Stripping furniture to beat the baby blues

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In the 1950s, an edition of Mother & Baby came up with a new suggestion to beat the baby blues: stripping furniture. While the suggestion might appeared effective if the problem was the so-called baby blues (which normally passes anyway within a week or so), it’s unlikely to have worked with post-natal depression.

No pet names

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Although many parents will have ignored this advice, or remained in ignorance of it, one school of early twentieth century parenting advice cautioned against pet names. At the very least, pet names deemed “too soft” were to be avoided for fear of raising a child without the requisite backbone. English boys schools took this to its logical extreme, with even very young boys being referred to by only their surname.

Sowing the seeds of socialism

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The same paediatrician who recommended coffee for six month old babies also had thoughts about how to ensure your child didn’t grow up a socialist. In his view, which he expounded in his 1962 book, he said, “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.”

Sky cots

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Not many parents enjoy air travel with babies. In the 1950s some airlines tried to ease the problem by introducing “Sky cots”. However, these weren’t the bulkhead cots of today, which place babies within sight and easy reach of their parents. Instead, a “Sky cot” was located on the luggage rack above the parents’ heads.

Avoid loud noises

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Of all the weird and wild advice given to pregnant women, the snippet about where to sit when listening to the radio is one of the most peculiar. In the 1940s, a Canadian pamphlet issued by the government urged pregnant women to sit well back from their radio when it was playing. The reason? Apparently loud noises could get the woman “too excited”.

Weight gain

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Pregnant women have long worried over pregnancy weight gain. However, in the 1980s, doctors took a much more uniform approach. Instead of being guided by a woman’s pre-pregnancy weight or, indeed, by how many babies she was expecting, they recommended that a pregnant woman’s weight gain should be between 25 and 30 pounds.