Research: Bringing Up Baby In Colonial America

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Written by: Lori Soard
Date: 2002

Colonial mother and baby
Colonial mother and baby

The colonists brought with them from Europe definite ideas on how to raise children.  They thought that infants were mere lumps of flesh to be shaped into human beings by their parents, both in body and soul

The first event after birth for a new baby was to be laid flat on the midwife’s lap.  The midwife would then press her hands on the baby’s tiny face, smoothing it out. She would pull the tiny nose to make it long, more like the nose of an adult. Next, she would squeeze together the bones of the baby’s head to try to make the soft spot close sooner.   She would pull the infant’s arms and legs straight and firmly wrap him/her.

It was believed that if children were permitted to grow unconstrained, they would never learn to walk upright.  So, from a young age, babies wore a corset (a type of undershirt which was stiffened with whalebone or other hard materials) . Also, a stiff board was belted onto baby’s back to keep the spine straight.

Babies were not allowed to crawl, because only animals went on all fours, however people walked erect. That is why both boys and girls were dressed in long robes and many layers of petticoats. Not only did such clothing make it harder for the child to crawl, it also kept him warm in winter.

The colonists used an apparatus resembling a modern baby walker, however, it had no seat. Babies were strapped into the device and forced to stay on their feet. If they grew weary and cried, they were usually ignored; people thought babies couldn’t feel pain or discomfort. They believed that babies cried to exercise their lungs. There was also the thought that the first lesson children should master was to be obedient in all ways. Therefore, if an adult wished for them to stand, they had to stand.

Usually, babies spent the first few weeks of their lives with their mothers. Childbirth was a perilous period of time for both mother and baby, for that reason the rest of the family took care of the household. This way the two of them could recuperate. Some families were not able to afford for an adult to take a few weeks off and these mothers were forced to return to work as soon as possible.

When babies started walking, busy parents were not able to keep an attentive vigil over them to prevent falls. So they were frequently fitted with a cap that was thickly padded to protect them when they fell. It was a big round hat called a “pudding”

1904 Cradle
1904 Cradle

Some babies slept in cradles, however it was more common for parents to use whatever materials were handy to make baby a bed:

A crate a box, or a few boards nailed together. The baby had to be kept warm, so during the day, the bed would be left close to the fireplace and at night baby would usually sleep with parents.

There weren’t many high chairs or furniture for children. There was limited time to make special furniture that would only be used for a short while.

When small, babies were usually bathed daily but as they grew older, they would be bathed about once a week, like the rest of the family. Due to limited washing water their diapers were not changed often. This caused them to suffer from severe diaper rash. Parents traded recipes for ointments to ease baby’s irritated skin.

Babyhood was brief in the colonies. By three years of age, children were expected to help the family. the would feed the chickens or wash dishes. The children were assigned chores to make them feel useful and because their help was actually needed.

 

Lori Soard started Word Museum in 1997. She’s a published author and has written thousands of articles over the years for newspapers, magazines and online. She has a PhD in Journalism and lives in Southern Indiana with her husband. They have two grown daughters, both animal lovers their house is always filled with pets.

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