Scientific Motherhood

ModernPriscilla1929-03When I was studying midwifery, approximately 100 years ago, I decided to write an essay on parenting advice.

It was probably a pretty crappy piece of work.

The internet was not really something you surfed back then. Research was all about library books on shelves and some midwifery journals (paper ones, in the library).

None of which seemed to have anything to say about this topic.

I can’t remember the major texts I cited back then, but I do remember coming to the conclusion that parents should be encouraged to trust their own instincts with regard to parenting.

Controversial stuff for a student midwife with no experience of parenting at all. Partly, I think I was overwhelmed with the prospect of teaching new parents about something I knew nothing about. Hand it over to them, sister. It made sense.

Turns out maybe I wasn’t so wrong.

The last hundred years or so in the industrialised world has seen a bunch of people termed “parenting experts” telling parents how to raise their children. Given that not so long before that children were usually seen as economic units: mini- adults suited to working in confined areas, like chimneys and sweat shops, I guess it was nice at least that someone took an interest in whether they lived or died.

Mothers were also seen to be solely in charge of child raising (see my post on the Cult of the Mother). Sounds good, but unfortunately they ended up caught in a trap: when concerns arose over infant mortality rates in urban areas in the US, mothers took the lionshare of the blame. Mothers were collectively blamed for poor hygiene, poor diet, not breastfeeding or breastfeeding poorly.

Germ theory made a few things clear, but it took years for the message to get out: babies got ill because of exposure to viruses and bacteria, viruses and bacteria thrived in dirty drinking water, poor people often had to rely on contaminated drinking water…should do something about that dirty drinking water.

The new profession of paediatrics leapt into the task of developing formula for babies whose mothers were unable to breastfeed them.  This was much needed, when so many babies died before their first birthday.  This unfortunately turned into a way to feed babies when women were having problems with breastfeeding, and then, into just a different way to feed your baby. Formula feeding was, initially at least, managed by the medical profession. Paediatricians’ main work was largely in infant feeding plans.

Parenting books started to be written in the 1920’s, but Dr Spock was the breakthrough text in 1946 with his Baby and Child Care. 

The book was predicated on the idea that parents “know more than they think”. There was gentle encouragement for parents to “trust their instincts”. Unfortunately most of the information in the book related to bottle fed baby behaviour. Again parents were gently encouraged to breastfeed, but if it proved difficult, there was always bottle-feeding.

And there were regular reminders to consult with your doctor to check that your instincts were indeed right.

Today there are approximately one gazillion people who write and blog and speak about parenting. Some of these instruct  inflexible and routinised methods to make absolutely sure babies will sleep for long periods.

The good ones let parents know about normal baby and infant behaviour to help them adjust their expectations of what “normal” is (it’s a cycle on the washing machine last time I checked).

Then gentle encouragement to go for that elusive goal: “what works for you”.

A thing I say when talking to parents-to-be in antenatal clinic: “we midwives know a bunch of stuff about lots of babies, but not about your baby …. pretty soon you’ll be the expert there.”

Here are some links to good baby stuff:

http://www.pinkymckay.com

http://raisingchildren.net.au

https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au

 

 

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Cult of the mother.

I’ve just spent a good many hours reading a book about the history of infant feeding in the USA.

Mothers and Medicine: a social history of infant feeding 1890-1950. By Rima D.Apple

It has been interesting to learn about the way breastfeeding was viewed at the end of the nineteenth century, just as artificial baby formula was being developed.  Although this is definitely a history of the US experience, we can allow reflections on breastfeeding in Australia where many broad cultural themes were similar, such as the role of science and medicine in everyday life, and the lived experience of women.

The “cult of true motherhood” or the “cult of domesticity” described how women were viewed in the latter part of the nineteenth century: women were defined by their role as mothers, and were entirely responsible for the well-being of their children.  Kind of nice to have the recognition, but at times it would have been a tough load to carry.

In the nineteenth century in the United States, breastfeeding was generally seen as the best way to feed a baby, but the lactating breast was also seen as a sensitive and unpredictable organ: milk supply could be effected by anything from a “fretful temper” to a “fright”, and breastfeeding was likely to overtax the mother’s well-being, causing a “general weariness and fatigue”. Lactating women were encouraged to eat well, exercise a little and cultivate a serene disposition(!).

Go on…breastfeed…just make sure you do it perfectly. Oh, and good luck.

The second best way to feed your baby (should your unpredictable breasts not do your asking, despite your serenity) was for another woman to feed your baby. But wet-nursing was also problematic: how to ensure that this woman from the working class would be eating well, maintaining some serenity and not wasting her precious milk on her own infant? Never mind the enduring view of character being conferred by a baby’s food source.

Infant mortality rates were alarming, criticism of wet nurses widespread. The medical and scientific solution to the problem was to further develop baby formula. Bottle feeding was seen as a thing able to be manipulated by science, unlike the vagaries and uncertainties of that most female of activities: lactation.

And so began an era of medical advice for infant feeding. While mothers were very special people who were expected to take responsibility for their children’s upbringing, they would need a little bit of help from medicine if breastfeeding wasn’t working. That help would be in a bottle of baby formula, perhaps suggested by a doctor qualified in the newest of medical specialties: paediatrics.o-VICTORIAN-BREASTFEEDING-PHOTOS-570