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In the annals of bad baby advice, a dubious prize goes to Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl, who provoked outrage last year when it came to light that a book he’d written with his wife, To Train Up a Child, was allegedly linked to the deaths of three children by abuse and neglect. Inspired by Pearl (and the tale of a 1960s Miami pediatrician who believed in feeding solids to newborns; more about that below), I decided to survey the worst advice given to parents, going back to the 1700s.
As late as 1962, well after Spock’s kinder, gentler approach had become a staple of nightstands across the country, a Miami pediatrician named Walter W. If there is one pervasive theme in baby advice books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is a preoccupation with the bowels.
The daily drudgery of cleaning dirty cloth diapers may have been part of the impetus for recommendations to toilet train newborns, but experts often added a moral component. Several advice books suggested that mothers could harm their babies by thinking the wrong sorts of thoughts. After World War II, commercial baby food producers as well as pediatricians drastically lowered the age at which they recommended babies start solids. These days, we know more about the basics of infant nutrition and medical care, and don’t waste time worrying about angry, brain-maiming breast milk.


If it’s any consolation, surveying the fads of past advice can give you some perspective on contemporary ones.
What stands out most in these books is the chiding tone espoused by the mostly male physicians writing them. Watson and others, spoiling a baby was an immoral act that could forever curdle a child’s character. Some of this is understandable, as it was feared they could transmit diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis to their newborn charges. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, much to the delight of Gerber and Beech-Nut, the average age at which parents introduced solids plummeted from 7 months to four to 6 weeks, according to various surveys. But we do fixate on matters of style (attachment parenting or cry-it-out from the nursery?), as well as the finer details of infant care (solids at 4 months or 6)? There may never be a baby book that offers the conclusive answer to every question, but it’s possible to extract some wisdom from the suffering of past generations of parents. An 1878 book called Advice to Mother informed said mother that she should not give her baby gin to relieve flatulence.


We also know that there are many matters for which we will probably never have definitive scientific answers. Does the book you’re reading contradict itself repeatedly, require you to override all your parental instincts, or send you into a panic over your own inadequacy?
Absolutely no night feedings, he wrote, no matter how young the baby, nor how much it cried. By 6 to 8 months, the pamphlet predicted, the baby would be trained, and by 10 months, parents could start in on bladder training. As historian Markel pointed out to me, there are ethical problems with experimental trials on babies, and besides, there’s not much money to be gained in testing, for instance, whether babies should be rocked or ignored in the middle of the night.



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