What is it about?
This essay examines print literature targeting American mothers of infants from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, analyzing text excerpts from “baby books” spanning six decades and providing background illuminating those texts and their authors. Books authored by Benjamin Spock, Arnold Gesell, and John B. Watson are reviewed, among others. Changes in recommended feeding and toilet-training practices, sleeping arrangements, and behavioral expectations of babies, as well as the variation in style and tone of the experts’ advice are noted. Parent advice publications grew in popularity as changing family structures removed traditional sources of information and support for mothers, and the public came to highly regard scientific information and seek expert guidance in aspects of their lives previously governed by traditional wisdom. Publications of the federal Children’s Bureau and that agency’s role in advising parents are reviewed as well. Despite the advice-givers’ presentation of their recommendations as universal and scientific, their writings more accurately serve as a chronicle of changing patterns of beliefs and attitudes of middle-class society rather than an empirical body of knowledge about infant growth and development.
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Why is it important?
New parents seeking professional advice assume a basis in scientific knowledge of child growth and development. This essay provides evidence that “expert” advice books reflected middle class societal trends and preferences more than research-based knowledge of child development. The essay also provides a fascinating window into the past by sharing text of 20th century “baby books.”
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This page is a summary of: Shifting Sands, Journal of Family History, April 2017, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/0363199017696046.
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