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Blast from the past: parenting tips from the 1930s

Cell phones, social media presence, Taylor Swift – there’s a lot about Baby’s childhood that’s going to be different from yours, just like there were things about the way you grew up that seemed completely alien to your parents. These differences are a big deal, but they’re connected to the present – things that are new and different are built off of things that are familiar – it can just take a little distance to see what the connection is. For example, there are things about common American parenting practices in the ‘30s that would seem unthinkable today, but there are others that are the basis for what parents do today.

  1. Where Baby leads…
    In the ‘30s, C. Anderson Aldrich, one of the founders of the American Academy of Pediatrics, began advocating for baby-led feeding, and for parents to let their children’s appetites guide their food intakes. This was a direct reaction to the norms of the early ‘20s, which believed that the best way to feed babies was through strictly following officially determined portion sizes. Today, most pediatricians and nutritionists recommend allowing your child’s appetite to determine her portion sizes as long as she keeps growing at a healthy rate.
  2. Working hard, working out
    Edward Theodore Wilkes’ suggestions in Baby’s Daily Exercises, which includes moving Baby through a series of weird parent-guided calisthenics, regardless of her muscle control, may seem a little wacky to the modern parent, but he’s honing in on a couple of things that become important later. First, he notes that babies tend to enjoy these touch-heavy exercises, at a time when there was some conflicting advice about whether cuddling with your baby was good for her, though we now know that touch is an important part of parent-child bonding. Second, he’s not wrong that babies need to develop their muscles, though we tend to let them do it at their own pace, just by giving them the space to explore, these days.
  3. When you’ve got to go
    Okay, so there isn’t really a current descendant of the very early potty training and scheduled bowel movements that were recommended to young parents in the ‘30s unless it’s elimination communication, an alternative potty training style that involves getting rid of diapers early, and instead watching for their babies’ cues and trying to get them to the toilet on time. That’s not the method ‘30s parents were expected to follow, though – the recommendations they received had more to do with training their babies onto their schedules than listening to their cues. Babies everywhere are glad we moved past this one.
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