Helping parents make confident choices

History of babycare

Find out what really has changed in babycare over the last 100 years

Feeding from goat udders, potty training from birth and pooing on demand: bringing up baby has certainly changed over the decades…


As a mum, you might feel that advice on what’s best for your baby is constantly being updated. But a look back at babycare over the past 100 years reveals some ideas about parenting that are so different they make the fads of today seem tame by comparison!

Breast feeding - Milk monitors

Fashions in feeding have changed frequently over the years, with breasts being in one moment and out the next – so to speak!

One hundred years ago, artificial feeding was thought very modern. But you couldn’t just pop to the pharmacy to buy a tin of formula. Instead, says Christina Hardyment in her book Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford, mothers practically needed a chemistry degree to work out the proportions of cow’s milk, water and other ingredients that they were supposed to mix together.

Going back to before the advent of bottle-feeding, she reveals, the alternatives to the breast were very different. Upmarket mums who didn’t want to breastfeed paid a ‘wet-nurse’ to suckle their children. And the poorest of the poor – the orphans whose mothers had died in childbirth – sometimes had their feeds
direct from the udders of goats.

Potty training - The bottom line

Dealing with what comes out of your baby has been subject to as many fashions as what you put into your baby.

A century ago, potty training began at birth with babies being dangled over porcelain chamber pots before and after every feed. Sometimes a piece of soap was popped inside their bottom as a stimulus. Slowly, over the decades, as nappies improved and plastic pants were invented, potty training got put back later and later.

Now, with the availability and ease of disposables, most UK mums don’t attempt to potty train before two years.

Behaviour and routine - Tough love

In Our Baby for Mothers and Nurses, a baby handbook published over 100 years ago Edwardian parenting adviser Mrs Hewer was a stickler for routine and the on-demand feeding favoured today was a no-no. Mrs Hewer stated, “Irregular feeding is sure to be followed by evil consequences. Baby should be fed by the clock.”

But it was in the 1930s that parenting became truly military in style. What was needed, said baby care guru of the day Truby King, was a scientific approach. For Mr King, routine was everything and a baby was essentially a fur-free puppy that needed to be controlled and subdued.

Snuggles and cuddles were out and discipline was in – big time. Feeds (breastfeeding only now) were four-hourly and never at night. Fresh air, and lots of it, was compulsory and timetables ruled the nursery – for sleep, feeds and even poos.

Cuddles - The gentle touch

After several decades of Truby King, Dr Spock came along and suggested that it might be nice to pick up your baby and cuddle him from time to time. Before Dr Spock, crying was seen not as something to be comforted, but something babies had to do to ‘exercise their lungs’. Dr Spock changed all that and put the passion back into parenting.

And these days?

It’s all far more confusing, with debates raging between the rigid routine of Gina Ford and the ‘go with the flow’ attachment parenting of Dr William Sears and Martha Sears.

Trust yourself and do what feels right for you. If babies can survive feeding from goats, they can survive pretty much anything!

Mums’ stories: Three generations of mums share their babycare experiences

Victoria’s story

“Mums today worry too much”

“I gave birth to Aneka at home with my husband, John, waiting downstairs. Then it was back to normal; in the 1950s, you just got on with it.

“Women stayed at home then, and I did everything – Albert never changed a nappy. For baby care, I just followed my instincts. Mums now have so much information that they worry and miss out on the fun of having a baby.

“There were no disposable nappies – we used terries (boiled in a copper pan to clean them), a muslin liner and plastic pants. Aneka was potty trained at 10 months.

“I kept to a routine. My children had to fit in, especially as John worked shifts. Aneka was put in the garden in her pram for fresh air every day – I’m sure it helped her to sleep.

We had no TV and toys were simple – like dried peas in a treacle tin to shake. But I’d never swap my experience. We had the best time!”

Victoria, 76, is mum to Aneka, 49, who is mum to Rachel, 26, who is mum to Christine, 8, and Lucas, 1.

Aneka’s story

“I’m glad I was a mum in the 1980s”

“When I had Rachel and her brother Alex in the 1980s, the health visitor’s advice was to stick to a routine. But I didn’t, I’m not that sort of person. And I breastfed my kids, though most people bottlefed at that point.

“I worked a little, but I wasn’t really a career person then and I did have time to get to know my baby. Disposable nappies were just coming in but were so leaky I mostly used terries.

My husband left that to me, though he did play with the kids. There wasn’t the choice of baby clothes that there is now – especially not for boys. I bought two-tone velour babygros, which sound awful but were nice at the time!

“One thing we didn’t worry about was cot death – the advice was to put your baby to sleep on her front.

“I’m glad I was a mum in the 1980s. Now, advice seems to change weekly. There’s too much pressure now to have perfect kids and be a perfect mother.”

Rachel’s story

“Baby clothes are better these days and husbands are more helpful!”

“When I had Christine, I just went with the flow, but with Lucas I wanted a routine to fit around Christine’s school times.

“Like my mum and grandma, I breastfed, but very much on demand. Unlike them,
I put my babies to sleep on their backs – the advice is different now due to cot death. And I just couldn’t have left my babies out in the garden in the pram – I wouldn’t have been able to take my eyes off them!


“Baby clothes are definitely better now and although I did intend to use reusable nappies, I went for the convenience of disposables. Best of all, I’ve had so much help from my husband. He does nappies, bathing, feeding and everything."


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