Vintage Parenting Advice That’s Now Horrifying
Becoming a parent for the first time is a pretty nerve-wracking experience for most people, and taking advantage of the wealth of information and advice out there can help ease those anxieties. Both current and expectant parents are most likely to turn to medical professionals for parenting tips — and it’s just as well. Some of the parenting advice of yesteryear is ridiculous at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
Luckily, society has evolved, and so has people’s understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to raising a child. Here are 14 vintage parenting tips that definitely belong in the past. Some are downright crazy recommendations from centuries ago, while others, scarily enough, include advice some parents might still live by today.
Smoking During Pregnancy Is Perfectly Acceptable
As recently as the 1960s, moms-to-be were assured that smoking while pregnant was fine. Babies were even used to advertise cigarettes (“Gee, Mommy, you sure enjoy your Marlboro.”) Of course, that was before we understood the negative health effects of smoking, both on the smokers themselves and their unborn babies.
A study of nearly 53,000 U.S. children born in the 1960s, published in the “American Journal of Epidemiology,” found that those whose mothers smoked during pregnancy were at higher risk of low birthweight, which is linked to a higher risk of medical problems shortly after birth. Additionally, some studies have linked low birthweight to a higher risk of certain health conditions later in life, like high blood pressure and diabetes.
Add Sugar to Your Baby’s Water
Mary Poppins might have relied on a “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down,” but we now know that too much sugar isn't great for anyone, especially babies. So, it’s hard to believe that moms in the 1860s were encouraged to dissolve several lumps of sugar in their baby’s bottle. Fast-forward a few decades, and drink manufacturers told parents that cola was a healthy choice for their little ones.
While some modern doctors might use sugar water to help relieve a young child’s pain during a medical procedure, it’s certainly not something that’s recommended for daily use at home. Not even if you’re Mary Poppins.
Kiss Your Child Only Once a Day
According to one 1928 parenting manual, you should kiss your child on the forehead only once per day — when you say goodnight — and at no other time. However, modern research confirms what all affectionate parents know: Human contact is hugely important to a baby's development. Numerous studies conclude that warmth and affection from parents to their children results in life-long positive outcomes for those kids.
For example, in 2010, researchers at Duke University Medical School found that babies with very attentive, affectionate mothers turn into happier, more resilient and less anxious adults.
Bathe Newborns in Lard
Lard is great when you’re baking a pie, but not so useful when you’re bathing your baby. But some questionable parenting advice from the early 1900s claimed that babies needed to be bathed in lard, oil or butter every day for a week after birth. It’s not clear what the purported benefit of this was, but let’s hope those slippery tots managed to stay safely in their mothers’ arms. The bizarre bathing advice continued though: In the late 1950s, moms were encouraged to bathe their babies every day, and two or three times a day in hot weather.
Modern advice is a lot simpler: Until baby’s umbilical cord stump falls off, wash them with a soft sponge or flannel instead of giving them a bath. And after the cord has healed, they don’t need a bath every day; once or twice a week is fine for the first few months. Too much bathing can actually dry out a baby’s skin. And definitely leave the butter in the fridge.
Maternal Stress Makes Breast Milk Poisonous
More incredible advice for 19th century moms warned them not to get anxious around their babies, because “nervous agitation” may make their breast milk poisonous. There’s really not much to say about this, except that it’s perfectly normal — and natural — for new moms to experience anxiety after giving birth. It’s a life-changing experience, and it’s common to feel overwhelmed and emotional, not to mention exhausted.
Hormone levels drop after giving birth, which often results in the “baby blues,” short dips in mood experienced by up to 80 percent of new moms. If mood swings and feelings of anxiety and sadness last longer than the first few weeks of your baby’s life, or they get worse instead of better, you may have postpartum depression. This affects more than 10 percent of moms, and it’s important to get help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it certainly won’t make your breast milk poisonous.
Put Your Baby Outside, Whatever the Weather
The 1950s mom was encouraged to stick her tot in their pram and park it outside all day, come hail or shine, because experts seemed to think that “fresh air” could cure anything. Presumably these babies were well wrapped up if it was cold (or blowing a gale or pouring with rain), but it seems a little cruel that the rest of the family was tucked up nice and warm indoors while the youngest member of the family was braving the elements.
Luckily for today’s infants, this “outdoors in all weather” approach is long gone. Yes, fresh air is good for everyone, but babies need to be warm, too. Babies can lose heat rapidly — much faster than adults can — and even full-term, healthy newborns may not be able to maintain their body temperature if their environment is too cold.
Weigh Your Newborn Regularly
Yes, it’s important to monitor your newborn’s weight. But the parenting article from the 1950s that suggested moms weigh their babies regularly seemed to suggest that this should be done at home. Most parents don’t have scales that are appropriate for use with a baby, so it’s not clear what they were supposed to use for this task — a kitchen scale?
A much better option is to attend all newborn appointments with your pediatrician, who will weigh your baby, advise accordingly and allay any fears you may have about your infant’s weight. Incidentally, most babies who are born full term (at 38 to 40 weeks gestation) weigh between 6 to 9 pounds. Birth weight can be affected by many factors, such as whether the baby is born earlier or later than full term, the mother’s health during the pregnancy, nutrition during pregnancy and genetic factors like the parents’ build.
Don’t worry if your newborn loses some weight in the first five to seven days of life — most do. It’s normal for formula-fed babies to lose up to 5 percent of their birth weight, while a 7 to 10 percent loss is considered normal for breastfed babies. Most babies regain this lost weight by the time they are 2 weeks old.
Watching TV Benefits Children
Some TV shows and YouTube channels are educational, and there’s no shame in admitting to relying on the iPad to let you take a quick bathroom break or hang up the laundry, but to say screen time “benefits” young kids is stretching the truth a little too far.
Too much screen time has been linked to a higher risk of obesity and a greater propensity for aggressive behavior, and may have an adverse effect on a child’s memory and language skills. Technology can be a positive part of a healthy childhood, but parents are advised to stick to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) screen-time guidelines, which include no screen time at all (apart from video chatting) for babies and toddlers up to 18 months old.
Put Your Baby in a Cage
Most parents welcome ideas to keep their young kids out of the way while they get on with chores, but a “baby cage” — suspended out of the windows of apartments in the U.K. in the 1930s — probably wasn’t the safest option. (The fact that the cage could double as a place to sleep, with removable curtains to protect the baby from drafts, doesn’t make this any more appealing or acceptable.)
A far kinder alternative to the cage is babywearing, which involves placing your baby in a sling or carrier to keep them close to your body. This isn’t just a practical way to free up your hands for other tasks; it’s believed to provide several benefits to your infant, including relieving colic, promoting parent-child bonding and aiding physical development.
Invite Dad to “Help” With Baby
Today, most fathers look after their kids without being “invited” to, but things were a little different in the early 1970s, when moms were advised to invite their husbands to help care for their baby. Apart from this being an unnecessarily formal step to take every time you want someone to change a diaper, the advice is just as insulting to men as it is to women.
Research shows the importance of infants bonding with their dads. For one study, published in the “Infant Mental Health Journal,” U.K. researchers looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age and measured the infants' cognitive development more than a year later. They found that babies whose fathers were more engaged and active when playing with them in their early months performed better in cognitive tests at two years of age.
A growing number of parents are exploring a wide range of child-rearing arrangements, including stay-at-home dads and full-time working moms.
Your Daughter Belongs in the Kitchen ...
… and your son belongs in the shed. This antiquated advice is, sadly, still followed by many parents. Since the beginning of time, girls have been brought up to do household chores and learn the skills necessary to become a “good wife” someday, while their brothers were handed tools and encouraged to get dirty outdoors.
Fortunately, gender equality is a priority for many modern parents. A survey carried out by Pew Research Center in 2017 found that most Americans think it’s important to steer children toward toys and activities traditionally associated with the opposite gender.
Tell Your Daughter to “Keep Her Legs Closed”
This particular piece of advice might not cause any immediate harm, but its negative effects are far-reaching. “Instead of giving kids specific how-to skill sets surrounding sexual decision-making, parents mistakenly focused on what not to do — and teens didn't listen,” says Mike Domitrz, founder of The Date Safe Project.
Instead of telling teenagers to abstain from sex, smart parents equip their kids with the knowledge they need to make safer choices, and help them access and understand how to use contraceptives. Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. have been decreasing steadily over the past two decades, dropping from an all-time high of 62 births per 1,000 in 1991 to 20.3 births per 1,000 in 2016.
Criticize and Punish Whenever You Like
“Parents of yesteryear handed out criticism and punishment left and right,” says Parent Coach and Board Certified Behavior Analyst Leanne Page. “But behavior science shows us that the best way children learn is through the use of positive reinforcement.”
According to Page, one way to increase positive reinforcement in your parenting is to tell your child exactly what you are praising them for. “When we say ‘good job’ many times a day, it can start to lose its value,” she explains. "But when we say ‘good job helping your sister,’ your child knows exactly what behavior will earn them that reward.”
Positive reinforcement increases a behavior in the future — a behavior you want to see more of. “Past generations were not as fortunate to have the science at their fingertips,” adds Page. “So, let’s stick with the parenting methods that science show us to be the best.”
Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard
You don’t have to look too far in the past to find a time when children were expected to remain silent unless they were spoken to and stay out of the grown-ups’ way. It’s one thing to have manners and respect, but no child should be expected to behave as if they’re in a museum all the time.
In fact, encouraging children to socialize with adults and express their views can foster many important skills, says Tatsha Robertson, co-author of “The Formula: Unlocking The Secrets of Raising Highly Successful Children.” “Parents of high-achievers speak to their small children like adults, encourage them to not only sit at the table with adults but to speak up,” she says. “They also teach them it’s OK to disagree with an authority figure, but do it effectively and politely. All of this inspires the child to learn negotiation skills and improve language skills while also learning to self-advocate.”