6 Feb 2012

The 1950s Do's and Don't's of Parenting Babies Is Remarkably Sane

My cousin Amy just had a baby - her first - this weekend. Welcome to the world, Ethan Brady, and congrats to his lovely mom and dad! I hope these first few days and weeks and months are as calm and sweet as can be!

I imagine new parents are inundated with advice - some welcome, some not. I tend to not be the disher of said advice, given my status as a happy-to-be-childfree type, but I have no problem giving advice to the advice givers, if that makes any sense. And my advice to them is this: Chill the fuck out. You need only take a twirl on Google to see why I say this. If you go online, the top, most-frequently mentioned advice sounds like this:
  • SIDS! SIDS! Your baby is likely to die at any given moment unless you do everything perfectly. And even then, he might still die. SIDDDDDSS!
  • Run to your baby if he is crying. Every. Time. RUNNNN!
  • Don't shake your baby - even if you really want to.
  • Get medicated!
It all sounds exceptionally stressful. Yes, postpartum depression is real and should be taken seriously, but perhaps we can do a better job supporting mothers and fathers (both in our actions and in the advice we give) to reduce factors that heighten anxiety. With this in mind, I naturally turned to my 1950s materials to see how the advice compared. Was it also riddled with stressful thoughts?

I found a "Do's and Dont's" when it came to baby from the same 1959 Best Wishes magazine that I recently mentioned on the blog. And the advice? Strikingly low-key. Calm. Reasonable. So incredibly opposite to the manic-fest that is 1950s cooking suggestions and 1950s homemaking schedules (open the picture in a new tab to see it expanded):

There are, of course, a couple funny things in there. The magazine is Canadian, so naturally there is a mention not to give your newborn beer and gravy. But those are our staples, eh? I imagine the French Canadian version has been further customized to remind new moms to avoid treating the baby to Quebec family favourites, specifically ketchup, Pepsi, and cigarettes, tabernac.

There's also a shift in advice when it comes to crying; while one modern website states, "DO respond to your baby's cries. You are not spoiling your baby by immediately responding to their cries at this age, so feed, change, hold, or soothe your baby when she is crying", the 1950s advice says something quite different: "Though he cries, don't pick you baby up if he is well. A good lusty cry is excellent exercise." I have no idea if cry-it-out or attachment parenting are right or wrong - frankly, I don't think anyone knows - I just love how enthusiastic the advice is: "a good lusty cry!" "Excellent exercise!" "Go watch some telly, mom!"

And there's one big piece of advice that I just love and wish it was in all the baby books and websites today:

Yes, the generation of women who were often viewed as being the "perfect mothers" and the "perfect housewives" were, in fact, not slaves to the other members of the household. Yes, a baby needs a great deal of care and attention, but you're a person who has needs too. Like rest. And personal time. And a break. Maybe that advice alone - to not be a martyr to your baby - curtailed the need for advice like "don't shake your newborn when you're frustrated" - which is strangely and sadly in all of the "Do's and Don't's" that we see today.


Vivianne 8:34 pm, February 06, 2012  

It's so nice to see advice that isn't completely baby-centric and some version of attachment parenting (however covert). When my daughter was born, I felt pressured into breastfeeding, roomsharing (though never cosleeping), babywearing, etc. But I found it unbelievably frustrating, and soon chose to follow my mother's advice instead: formula-feed, if that's what you feel more comfortable doing, let the baby cry herself to sleep (in her own room), if necessary, and don't feel guilty for leaving the baby alone while you go do something else. Her advice was so liberating, and it was so nice to receive some validation for the choices I had wanted to make to begin with.
My daughter is now nearly three, and I have no regrets, other than allowing the 'mommy brainwashing' to get to me in the first place. This type of advice worked in our house, and I wouldn't resign it to the past just yet :-)
Thank you for this post!


Anonymous,  10:34 pm, February 06, 2012  

I think the advice is well meaning, but agree - it stresses us out! I also agree that there is no right or wrong way to raise a baby, just as long as you try to do what's best (whatever that is!) without sacrificing your sanity. Interesting that things seemed a bit more lax back then. Thanks for this!

Anonymous,  8:22 pm, February 08, 2012  

It doesn't surprise me that the parenting advice would be more hands off. You can't cook 3 meals a day and scrub your trash can once a week and attachment parent. Personally, I just let my house be a mess, but not everyone can live like that.

Anonymous,  5:46 pm, March 31, 2013  

Laugh out loud - I shall go out forthwith and purchase a gauze mask for my perma-snotty preschooler to wear at all times. And please tell me that "boiling nipples" was 50s speak for sterilizing bottles?

Anonymous,  10:55 pm, April 15, 2013  

I like this blog but I have to say. I think a mother should always put the baby before herself. What if she cries in the middle of the night? Get off your ass and calm her! Its only a few months no reason to get depression medication. People these days. Spoiling your child hen he is too young to remember is not going to scar him for the rest of his life.

PASSION FOR REAL ESTATE 4:04 pm, February 17, 2015  

If you attend to your child everytime he or she wakes up, then the child except you to be there.

You need to teach the child to be able to fall back asleep on its own.

As a parent you will learn to know if this is a 'normal' I just woke up crying, or if your baby is really upset. If so of course attend to your child.

Barbara Norden,  10:47 am, November 13, 2015  

I am looking for information about a parenting book written by an expert back in the 1940s or 50s, which my parents used. I think it was by a Doctor Frederick something MD. I discovered it on the bookshelf in the early 1960s when I was aged about 13, and it contained some advice that I thought was very troubling. I would like to trace it to find out if I was correct in my interpretation of what it said.

Marina Kingston 10:08 am, July 13, 2017  

The do's and don'ts have changed a bit now ever since the internet took over. I've been going to http://kidsecured.com/ so I could make sure that at least my kids are safe and sound in this dangerous time.

Unknown 6:09 am, August 15, 2018  

Though this posting was written several years ago, Jen has it right in a way that is timeless. I was raised in the 1950s by parents who found their own approach to childrearing through observation of their own children and their needs. They threw out the Dr. Spock book and instead went to their own parents for advice. As I grew up my parents dealt with each phase in my development based on what was going on at the time. When I showed an interest in drawing they bought Venus Paradise Coloring kits. When I was older and wanted to sew my maternal grandmother bought me a little chain stitch sewing machine. Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles were also involved and consulted with. But always my parents guided the way and I learned to respect them and others. Only when I was older, around 7 years old did they begin to include me in discussions and ask for my input. But they had the last say and would guide me to understand the reasons why. In time my own input was considered, once I was in my mid-teens and could carry through on my thoughts and present a solid case as to why I wanted a change in priveleges or such. What I am trying to say is that parents have much more capability and know-how once they realize the wealth of experience they have from their own family and parents.

It is entirely up to the Mom and Dad to decide such things as whether to formula feed or breast feed, attachment parent or not and so on. I truly believe that those who campaign so vigorously for one thing or another on the internet are spending too much time online about something that is up to the parents alone to decide. Those who are really enjoying life and their children will be online less and more focused on experiencing life in real time.

Great posting Jen and I'm enjoying your 1950s experiment as I read on.

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Unknown 9:54 pm, September 06, 2018  

I know this post is several years old, but I’m going to answer you anyway. Could the Doctor be Frederick Truby King? He was a MAJOR influence in the early 1900s.

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Kayli 10:32 pm, August 17, 2019  

Honestly i find most modern advice to be insane. Kids and families were more stable back in the day so imho their advice is more sound. Listening to my babies cry gives me anxiety so i do go to them after 10 seconds. And no, they don't sleep thru the night. :)

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Need words? I'm a Toronto-based freelance writer who injects great ones into blogs, websites, magazines, ads and more. So many services, one lovely Jen (with one 'n').

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