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Babies. We’ve been having them for a few hundred thousand years, and for many of those years, their care and upbringing remained pretty much the same. Mothers just relied on their instincts, along with a bit of help, advice and friendly interference from relatives, neighbours or the odd local medic. Any top tips were passed from generation to generation, and there were few new childcare fads to rock the cradle.
But in recent decades, as mass communication has burst into our lives, all manner of different ideas about every aspect of a baby’s life have been given an airing. Of course, advances in medical knowledge and demographic shifts inevitably bring about changes in the way we bring up our babies, but on top of this, it seems that every few years, a new theory of child-rearing has come into fashion – from the outlandishly out-there to the decidedly old fashioned – each promising parental riches, such as a baby who sleeps through the night or a child who is emotionally balanced.
For mums and dads who are keen to give their precious bundle the best possible start in life, the latest, persuasive, up-to-the-minute expert can be impossible to ignore. But by the next decade, it will probably be off with the old, and on with the new – a whole new babycare ideology will be flavour of the month. So, what are the main parenting trends that have come and gone – and often come round again – over the past few decades?
For the 1950s mum (and it was pretty much always mum), babycare was all about routine. According to the prevailing expert of the day, Sir Frederick Truby King, who had gleaned his ideas while working with cattle in New Zealand, babies were to be fed every four hours (regardless of how hungry they were) and put outside in the garden in their comfy, tank-like prams in between feeds to fill their lungs with fresh air. Once the baby was outside, Mum was to ignore him and get on with her chores, of which there were plenty. Washing cloth nappies was the bane of most mums’ lives in the 50s and 60s, so the race was on to get children potty-trained by 18 months. At night, babies were to be put in a cot in their own room, and any cries should be ignored. Cuddles should be limited to 10 minutes a day for fear of spoiling the child. Babyhood was about eating, sleeping and growing – any bonding could come later.
When it came to feeding, formula – given in a glass bottle – was (literally) just what the doctor ordered. Formula had recently become more available, affordable, and was seen by many – including some doctors – as superior to breast milk. By the mid-50s, only 20 per cent of US mums breastfed. As commercially produced baby foods became available (ranges included ‘strained meat’ – yum!), some doctors suggested weaning babies onto solids at four to
The 50s mama-to-be would have worn: practical, boxy-shaped clothes. Lucille Ball became the first woman to show off her pregnancy on screen – although the word “pregnant” was considered too vulgar to be used on air.
By the 60s, the previous decade’s rigid routines were becoming passé, and in their place came a more relaxed approach championed by paediatrician Dr Spock. Dr Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care sold over 50 million copies in the US in the twentieth century, and was second only to the Bible in the non-fiction bestsellers list. Although the book was written in 1946, it gained momentum over the next decade until, by the 60s, millions of mums – my own included – swore by it. Dr Spock’s central message to parents was: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Dr Spock was concerned that the strict schedules of the previous decades had ignored the baby’s emotional needs, and he wanted parents to give “natural loving care” as the best way to produce confident children who could form strong relationships. Cuddling babies was now allowed – even encouraged – and if it suited all for the baby to sleep in a cot next to the parents’ bed, so be it.
Mothers in the US and UK were still mainly bottle-feeding. Formula for newborns was still promoted, and the practice of taking babies to the maternity hospital’s nursery overnight during the whopping 10 days that mum and bub spent in hospital post-delivery (which was usual in the 50s, 60s and 70s) can’t have helped in establishing
breastfeeding. But formula wasn’t the only substance to be found in babies’ bottles. Many 60s babies were fed on watered down condensed milk, others were given a nip of whisky or brandy with their milk to help them sleep, and a bottle of sugar water was an accepted way to soothe an unsettled baby. It was also normal to dissolve baby rice or a rusk into formula and feed the baby this lumpy substance from a bottle at around two months. Obviously, do not try ANY of this at home…
The 60s mama-to-be would have worn: a shift dress, perfect for hiding a baby bump.
As flower power and peace and love seeped into society, parenthood took a turn for the Earth Mother. Two books reflected this zeitgeist. Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child, which was first published in 1977 and has sold more than two million copies, opened by saying it was written “from your baby or child’s point of view”, and its message was that babycare should be baby-led – rigid routines were out. A second book The Continuum Concept was written by anthropologist Jean Leidloff, who had spent two years observing a
remote tribe in South America, and saw that the constant physical contact between babies and parents resulted in happy babies who grew into independent children with high self-esteem. She advocated “attachment parenting” for Western parents, too – a baby should be carried in a sling at all times, breastfed on demand, and should sleep in his parents’ bed for as long as he wanted to.
Now, as more mums were cuddling and carrying their babies, rather than leaving them outside for hours on end, there was less time to wash cloth nappies, so disposables were starting to find their way onto babies’ bottoms. Bottle-feeding (in newfangled plastic bottles) was still the norm, but as the decade wore on, breastfeeding rates started to rise.
The 70s mama-to-be would have worn: anything! Mini dresses, maxi dresses midi dresses, and those stretchy polyester flares which were perfect for a growing bump.
For the 80s mummy, absorbing all the theories about how to look after your baby when he was eventually born was no longer enough. Now, with the arrival of What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff (which has sold 14.5 million copies, and still regularly tops the New York Times bestsellers list) mamas-to-be got a week-by-week, blow-by-blow guide to their pregnancy, with endless advice on optimising baby’s time in the womb to get him off to the best possible start in life. Now women could worry, in detail, about everything they were eating, everything they were doing and just, well, everything – before the baby was even born.
Once the baby arrived, via a generally shorter hospital stay than in previous decades, he was more likely to be breastfed as new studies supporting its benefits were publicised. By the 80s, cloth nappies were well and truly out, and disposable nappies were in, and many parents rejoiced in the fact that they were no longer slaves to the washing machine.
The 80s mama-to-be would have worn: a roomy tent-dress, with contrasting or feature collar, à la Princess Diana.
In the 90s, the sheer volume of information available to parents grew enormously as the internet became more mainstream. But the decade also saw the arrival of a new babycare expert on the block. Dr Sears’ The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two became a bestseller, although its emphasis on “attachment parenting” can’t have held many surprises for those who had been paying attention to some of the previous decades’ childcare advice. Babies should be nursed for as long as the mother and baby enjoy it, mothers should respond promptly to a baby’s cries, and babies should be kept close at all times.
By the 90s, the World Health Organization recommended breastfeeding for at least three months, and 62 percent of mums breastfed initially in the UK. But the big news in baby feeding was Playtimes’ favourite Annabel Karmel. Her Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner (1991) found its way onto thousands of bookshelves, and many parents ditched jarred baby food in favour of Annabel’s nutritious, home-cooked delights. All sorts of combinations of ingredients were mixed (grape and chicken purée, anyone?) so babies were nourished and their tastebuds tickled. Delicacies could be made, then frozen in ice-cube trays to make tiny, baby-sized portions – freezers everywhere were packed with weird and wonderful frozen cubes that no bleary-eyed mum would want to mistakenly add to a gin and tonic.
The 90s mama-to-be would have worn: Nothing! In 1991, Demi Moore posed nude for a Vanity Fair photo shoot while pregnant, saying that this gave women “permission to feel sexy and attractive when you’re pregnant.” No longer did pregnant ladies just have to battle nausea, varicose veins and a whole host of other ailments – they now had to look good and feel sexy in the process.
Well, wouldn’t you just know it? Just when mums and dads thought that attachment parenting was the last word in babycare, another childcare ‘bible’ hit the shelves in the noughties, and its message c
ouldn’t have been more different. The Contented Little Baby Book, by Gina Ford, advocated babies sleeping in their own cot, in their own darkened room from day one, and waking baby at 7 o’ clock every morning so the day’s programme of scheduled feeds, sleeps, nappy changes and activities could commence. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar… At postnatal coffee mornings, you could set your watch by the synchronised feeding, as the number of mums “doing Gina” grew. Babies were no longer to be picked up every time they whimpered, but instead should be left to learn to settle themselves. Following the routines, it was claimed, should result in a contented baby who quickly learnt to sleep through the night.
During the noughties, the long post-delivery hospital stays of the past were a distant memory, as most women were sent home after a day or two – sometimes after a mere matter of hours. The majority of women breastfed (at least initially), and official advice was (and still is) to breastfeed exclusively for six months before introducing solids. But just when parents had perfected their ice-cube trays of babyfood mush, a new phenomenon hit the highchair. Parents were urged to banish the blender and instead let baby feed himself from a selection of suitably-sized chunks of normal food in a process known as baby-led weaning. And also in the food department, those oh-so-modern plastic feeding bottles started to come under scrutiny, and the glass bottles of yesteryear went back into production. And just as grannies were telling parents how lucky they were not to be washing nappies (whilst simultaneously nagging them about their slouchiness in the potty-training department, as the average training age had crept up from 18 months to three years) environmental concerns meant that washable nappies – albeit new and improved – were making a comeback.
The noughties mama-to-be would have worn: wrap dresses, loose, kaftan-style tunics, or full-on body-con
The here and now
In our current age of information overload, new baby-raising ideas, trends and micro-trends appear – and disappear – quicker than ever. But if the past six decades have taught us anything, it is that, just like maternity wear, some childcare ideas can edge in and out of fashion. Our mothers’ babycare techniques were probably different to ours, and who knows what theories will be in vogue by the time our children become parents? As long as we stay aware of advances in medical knowledge that help us keep our babies safe and healthy, and strive to be “good enough” parents, rather than to slavishly follow one particular ideology, perhaps our job is done. Dr Spock, fresh from 1946, sums it up, saying, “Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbours say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say… take it easy [and] trust your own instincts.”