The Modern Baby

By Lenore Skenazy

May 3, 2018 5 min read

Babies haven't changed much in about a million years. But how we view and raise them? That's changing all the time and, in the process, changing us, says Janet Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers and author of the new book "Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century."

At the dawn of the 1900s, infant mortality was still so common that photographers routinely took pictures of babies in their coffins — eyes open — as keepsakes for the parents. It was only as mortality rates fell (and Kodak introduced its Brownie camera) that another kind of picture became popular: snapshots of babies very much alive, even giggly. That's when baby books — diaries for moms to fill in with baby's word, first tooth, etc. — started including a page where parents were told to paste a baby photo.

These books proved to be a treasure-trove for Golden, who pored over hundreds of them to see what parents considered to be good child rearing. "The thing that jumped out at me was that they used to have places where you wrote down 'baby's first accident,'" Golden said in a phone interview.

One such book from Red Bud, Illinois, recorded the early life of a boy named Charlie Flood, born in 1914. At 4 months old, he suffered a burn to his face. Four months later, he pulled off part of his tongue with a button hook. By toddlerhood, he'd gotten a nail in his foot and, later, glass in his hand from holding a bottle while he fell.

"Charlie's mother dutifully recorded each accident ... and he was hardly the only infant to have his calamities written down," writes Golden. "Babies fell down stairs, off porches, and out of high chairs and cribs. Some baby books even had places designed for writing down 'First Tumble.'"

Today, of course, babies still take tumbles, "but the standards of parental expectations have changed," Golden says. Accidents have gone from an ordinary part of childhood to something almost too shameful to admit. "And the same thing happened with discipline," says Golden. Some of the baby books have a "baby's first discipline" page, with moms filling in "I spanked baby for (blank)." You wouldn't find a page like that today.

In fact, you wouldn't find a lot of the practices considered prudent 100 years ago. The Children's Bureau published pamphlets giving parents all sorts of "good" advice, including:

"Don't kiss babies. Let them cry. Make sure they get a healthy tan. Don't give them pacifiers. Don't get them in the habit of being held," Golden synopsizes. Some of those strange-sounding tips made sense back then. Kissing spread germs, which, before antibiotics, could have proved deadly. It was an era of tuberculosis, too. If crying possibly made lungs stronger, why not let those babies wail? And a tan? Before companies started adding vitamin D to foods, kids got the bone-softening ailment called rickets. Sunshine prevented it.

Parental norms really started changing after World War II. Not only were there more home conveniences but also this was a more permissive era. Instead of rigid rules, parents turned to Dr. Spock, who famously told moms, "You know more than you think you do" — so just trust your gut. No need for a feeding schedule or anything like that.

But as loosey-goosey as the parenting style became, the standards of safety kept going up. The more babies who survived the more Americans began to believe they could — and must — obliterate any childhood adversity.

Which brings us to today — the safest times in human history, when parents are nonetheless encouraged to buy such things as devices that can monitor their babies' heart rates every single second, as if they were in constant peril. As safety has reached a new level, so has fear.

It doesn't get more modern than that.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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