Mum hacks: 5 tips for new mothers from history

Becoming a mum for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience, but thankfully today the internet is awash with advice and tips relating to pregnancy and parenting (some of it more helpful than others). So how did women in the past approach motherhood? Writing for History Extra, author Sarah Knott reveals five fascinating historical parenting recommendations for new mums – from how to predict the sex of a new baby, to the pros and cons of co-sleeping

17th September 1936: The British minister of health, Sir Kingsley Wood, watches nurses weighing newborn twins during a visit to Southmead Hospital in Bristol to see the work local authorities were doing for the maintenance and improvement of health and housing conditions. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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How to predict the sex

Do you want to know if you’re expecting a boy or a girl? Most past societies witnessed a hard-nosed preference for boys. That’s patriarchy. (That’s also seeing bodies as binary, the sorting of the world into people who are one thing or the other, even when some babies decidedly are not).

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For mothers in the past who hoped to determine the sex of their child, there were a number of unusual indicators believed to either influence or predict: eating warm food around the conception might make you more likely to have a boy, whereas cold food was thought to favour girls. Boys were believed to sit higher in the womb than girls. It was thought that if a woman’s right breast is firmer, or if her right eye brighter, then she will have a boy. If the left, a girl. Younger mothers would most frequently have boys, and older mothers most usually have girls.

Some of these kinds of predictions can still be overheard – even if we now live in the era of the ultrasound.

A Georgian painting depicting children leaving for school

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Bed-sharing or a separate cot?

In 1930s Kentucky, a woman named Verna Mae Slone slept with each of her babies. She was the youngest of 12 children in a poor rural community in which siblings routinely slept in the same bed as their parents and each other. “It’s what you grow up with,” as another Kentuckian observed of sleeping alongside his mother as a boy, and “if you ever take off from home, you’ll just crave it”.

Verna Mae – who included her experiences of parenting in a memoir published in the 1970s – thought bed-sharing made for a “closeness that cannot be understood unless you have experienced it”.

But opinion in her day, like ours, was divided. A local school-teacher who followed doctors’ advice to sleep separately from her infant recalled being scolded by a censorious “country woman” who thought that mothers who did not share their beds with their babies were neglectful.

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Sleeping and feeding

Parenting how-to guides have been around since at least as early as the 17th century. Among the 400 pages of Jane Sharp’s 1671 The Midwives Book are five post-natal pages “on the child” itself. Don’t keep a baby awake “longer than it will”, she recommended, “but use means to provoke it to sleep, by rocking it in the cradle, and singing Lullabies to it”. Also, “carry it often in the arms, and dance it”. Don’t let it “suck too much at once, but often suckle it” to help digestion. Alternate breasts when you nurse.

Seventeenth-century Englishwomen were expected to be highly attentive and to nurse on demand. And crying? For a child to cry a little was fine because it helped the brain and lungs, but crying a lot was dangerous – it was thought that an infant might get “broken bellied by its overstraining”.

A poster produced by the Ministry of Information encouraging pregnant women to eat a healthy diet. The text reads: "Now you are married, we wish you joy, first a girl and then a boy". (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
A poster produced by the Ministry of Information encouraging pregnant women to eat a healthy diet. The text reads: ”Now you are married, we wish you joy, first a girl and then a boy”. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
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To schedule or not to schedule?

The 1960s were the height of working-class scheduling, when parents believed that the best baby care involved strict fidelity to a nap and feeding routine. But oral histories suggest that many women became more flexible with a second baby, ignoring the instructions handed out by doctors, nurses and health workers.

A cabinet-maker’s wife remarked to an interviewer of her first and second children: “With Jane I was very routine-minded. I went to the clock. If she was asleep, I woke her up. But I changed my mind over Paul; I was more relaxed from the start, having had one, I suppose. You don’t worry so much.”

German women carrying children believed to be part of the Lebensborn programme, which aimed to raise the birth rate of blonde-haired, blue-eyed ‘Aryan’ children through interbreeding. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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Getting back to work

Was it usual for new mothers to be stuck at home doing childcare and domestic chores? Not in Native American communities of the mid-20th century. Maria Campbell, a storyteller from Gabriel’s Crossing, Saskatchewan in Canada, described Monday washdays in her Métis community. Laundering was collective: “maybe eight or ten wagons of us would go to this big pit about half a mile up the road.” Huge cast-iron pots of water were heated on fires. When a woman had a baby, she did not take part in the heavy scrubbing, but handed over her laundry to other women and tended the cooking instead. She was surrounded by people, although these habits changed only with the arrival of the gas washing machine.

Contrast Campbell’s community to her counterparts in Britain, where expectations of male breadwinners and the nuclear family tended to isolate new mothers in their houses. To Britons, maternal isolation seemed so usual as to be natural: “It’s the way it’s been going on for years,” – to quote one mother interviewed by British sociologist Ann Oakley in the 1970s.

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Sarah Knott is a writer and historian. She is the author of Mother Is A Verb: An Unconventional History (2019). Read more from Sarah in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine as she writes about the changing demands of motherhood throughout history.