Category Archives: Tradition

Time, touch, emotion and swaddling


I have a bee in my bonnet about swaddling. Really, I should currently be tearing my hair out trying to finish a document entitled ‘What is my thesis about?’, but the bee is buzzing quite loudly so I have given in.   The history of early infancy has traditionally been one of (at best) benign neglect (though this has obviously been challenged in more recent scholarship). High levels of infant mortality, economic pressures, and large families were just some of the reasons that infants might be swaddled tightly and either slung over mum’s shoulder, hung from the rafters or handed over to the care of a child not much older than itself. Karin Calvert has written about how swaddling made a child idiot-proof by holding it rigid and supporting the neck.[1] Where a swaddling board was used, the child could even be protected from falls or being dropped (she cites cases of infants being injured whilst being thrown back and forth between two carers like a rugby ball). Traditional accounts of swaddling talk of infants screaming from the restriction, accidentally stuck with pins and rarely changed. The authors that wrote these tracts undoubtedly had an axe to grind yet this the view of swaddling has remained remarkably persistent. I should like to offer an alternative.

Firstly, I would like to draw upon my own experiences of parenthood and the sore bottoms of infants. Neither of my babies suffered from particularly sensitive skin, but one of them went through a phase of dirtying her nappy at night but not waking up to inform me. Within two nights, the skin on her bottom was red, sore and beginning to break down. I became so concerned about septicaemia, that I began setting my alarm at intervals during the night so that I could check her nappy and change it where necessary. I must add that I value my sleep. I only did this because I felt there was a serious risk of blood poisoning if I didn’t. If babies in history had been left in their own faecal matter for long periods of time, I seriously doubt that the human race would have survived.

Let’s assume, then, that an early modern child was changed at least twice in any twenty-four hour period. I have plucked this figure from mid-air and I feel that it is pretty conservative. Even with environmentally unfriendly but extremely absorbent modern disposable nappies, babies require changing every four hours or so during the day. I did use fabric nappies with my children when they were at home, and these needed changing AT LEAST every two hours to prevent ‘incidents’. With this in mind, read this brilliantly detailed description of the process of swaddling that was recently blogged by Katy Canales of the V&A Museum.[2]

There was also much concern that babies were more vulnerable to the cold and carers would dress the child with a plethora of layers. These layers included a rectangular shaped clout or napkin (nappy). The nappy would be folded in two and inside they would put a bed of sphagnum moss or soft rags to absorb the waste, which could then be rinsed out and reused. There would be a ‘bellyband’ or a binder which was a strip of linen cloth which would be wrapped around the baby’s stomach to support the abdomen and protect the bellybutton. On top of that would be a front or back opening, linen shirt. On the baby’s head would be a triangular shaped cloth and one to two caps. The first cap was usually rather plain with the second one being rather more decorative. Then a ‘bed’ which was a rectangular shaped cloth with pleats at the top, would be wrapped around the baby and folded over its feet. This would effectively make a tidy bundle of the baby and hold down its limbs. Over this a three metre long swaddleband (a band of linen) would be wrapped or swaddled around the child in a variety of diagonal or herringbone patterns. A bib could then be added on top. The last layer was a ‘stayband’ whose function was to keep the head stable. This band was placed under the cap and pinned to the clothes at shoulder level.

Now let’s think about the physicality of this description. Imagine that you were changing this infant – it’s going to be a girl because I’m used to changing nappies on girls! You would need a stable surface upon which to place her – maybe your lap while you sat on a chair, maybe on the floor, or maybe on a bed or settle. You would have to be on the same level as her, sat next to her on the bed, knelt on the floor in front of her. Then you would need to unwrap her. You would have to be quite close, bent over her, in order to make sure that you removed all of the pins. She would have her eyes fixed on your face, because babies love faces. I know I would be talking to her, or pulling funny faces, or singing songs. As soon as you had taken the wrapping off, she would move. The extent of her movement would depend on her age but she would stretch, flex her fingers and her toes, arch her back. You would have to clean her. Water is still considered the best thing to use on newborn skin, so you would use a cloth dipped in water to wipe her.   Again, even with the advent of modern ‘nappy technology’ it is amazing how far babies can spread bodily substances. This would not be a quick job. If you don’t do it well, it accelerates skin breakdown. You might apply a homemade balm to her skin (the production of which, in itself, may have taken no small amount of time), stretching and straightening her limbs as you applied it. Then, you would start the process of wrapping her back up again.

Swaddling has gone down in history as a cruel and restrictive practice. It has become associated with uninterested and neglectful parenting. Yet, we know that early modern parents loved their children, you only have to look at Foundling Hospital tokens to understand the strength of their emotion. Examined from a physical perspective, swaddling practices could present the opportunity for touch, time and emotion to be shared between a child and it’s carer as well as representing an attempt to preserve their safety in infancy by restricting their movement.

[1] Karin Calvert, Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood 1600-1900 (1992).

[2] I am sorry that I not sufficiently technological to have worked out how to hyperlink to her blog. Here is the full web address if it helps!


The impact of ‘unnatural and unreasonable desires’ during pregnancy

I was recently having a chat with my favourite (only) sister @fivefingerfrank about the pressure on modern mothers to be perfect.  Any feelings of failure that we have as parents are exacerbated by a quick look on social media where we feel compelled to construct an idealised version of our family life, full of happy pictures and status updates that skim over the reality of staring down the gaping mouth of a screaming toddler after only 3 hours sleep and having run out of coffee.

As parents (and particularly mothers) we are regularly judged upon the decisions that we make in raising our children from the moment that we become pregnant – breast or bottle? Flu vaccination? Alcohol? And in what quantity?  Our everyday interactions with our unborn children are judged by friends, family and strangers alike, often based upon rapidly changing medical ‘facts’ on the correct course of action.  I am guilty of it myself.

Title page from Jane Sharp's 'Art of Midwifry Improv'd'
Title page from Jane Sharp’s ‘Art of Midwifry Improv’d’

Despite it being sufficiently ahistorical to upset my supervisors, I feel compelled to draw a comparison with early modern pregnancy and motherhood.  Up until the eighteenth-century even the medical establishment believed that the pregnant body was permeable – what were usually the boundaries of the body had been breached by the infant growing inside and this changed notions of internal and external.  It was therefore common sense that the thoughts, sensations and experiences of the mother could actually transfer themselves physically to the unborn child.  Here is an extract from a book by Jane Sharp, first published in 1675 but reprinted several times.  This edition was printed in 1725.

But before I come to her time of delivery, I shall speak a word of one frequent cause of Women’s Miscarriage, and that is their longings, and sometimes of their unnatural and unreasonable desires after they have conceived with Child…..sometimes you have Ladies at Court and Citizens Wives, and Country Women too will long to eat Sand and Dirt; but their Children seldom live long that are begun thus.[1]

The idea that the cravings of the mother would leave a mark on the child appears quite common and there are many records of individuals with food shaped birthmarks (red birthmarks are still referred to as ‘strawberry’ marks) where the mother had over-indulged in the object of her craving.

Sharp goes on to note:

There is another cause not far unlike to Women’s Longings, and that is suddain fears, for many a Woman brings forth a Child with a Hair Lip, being suddenly frighted when she conceived by the starting of a Hare, or by longing after a piece of Hare.[2]

At first glance, these ideas seem antiquated and vaguely ridiculous, yet they are perpetuated in a different guise today.  Instructions on the taking of folic acid, alcohol, cold and flu medication whilst pregnant abound. The extent to which we exercise, our weight, and our age is assessed in relation of the risk they pose to the unborn child. These directions are validated by their basis in scientific and medical fact yet so were Jane Sharp’s statements when they were published.  Occasionally, early modern practices are validated by modern science.  It has been suggested, for example that the early modern practice of giving birth in a darkened room may have reduced the chances of maternal haemorrhage in the dangerous hours following delivery.[3]  Some practices are enjoying a renaissance such as swaddling.  Whilst decried in the Ladies Magazine as ‘the barbarous custom of swathing children like living mummies’ in 1785 it is now possible to buy swaddling bands (minus the pins and swaddling boards!) in Next.  It is a reminder that science and medicine is as much a product of modern culture as literature, or history.   The ‘facts’ stated in Jane Sharp’s book are no different to the 1970s assertion that formula milk was better for an infant than breast, or the 1980s practice of supplying new mothers with a glass of stout to restore their strength and rebuild their iron reserves.

I suppose at least now, while we are being judged by others for the decisions we are making about our pregnant bodies, we can think murderous thoughts without the fear that they will be writ large on the bodies of our unborn infants!

[1] Jane Sharp, The compleat midwife’s companion; or, the art of midwifery improv’d, (London, 1725), p.113.

[2] Ibid, p.114.

[3] Adrian Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery, (London, 1991), p.93.