Infancy and Early Childhood

Infancy and early childhood were considered a dangerous time, both in terms of childrens’ physical survival and development. Infants were usually born at home and delivered by a midwife. Pregnancy and childbirth were a leading cause of death for colonial women, which meant that many children were raised by a stepmother. In contrast to much of Europe, most American mothers nursed their own infants, although some Southern slaveholding families had slave women nurse the babies. Parents feared the period of teething and weaning, because many children died at that age. Some early advice manuals blamed early childhood illness and death on teething, rather than on inadequate or unsafe diets, and advised parents to hasten teething by lancing open the baby’s gums. Families were large, and mortality was high, with both disease and accidents claiming many young lives. Infants and toddlers were often cared for by children not much older than themselves, and the home was filled with dangers like open fireplaces and large pots of boiling water. Older children often worked alongside their parents, exposing them to additional dangers. Death was a fact of life for colonial children. Parents and clergymen used this awareness of death to reinforce religious teachings, particularly the urgency of receiving salvation. Religious training occurred at home and at church, and it was reinforced at school. Children often participated in family prayers at home, typically spent most of Sunday at church, and memorized and were examined on Scripture verses. Seventeenth-century Puritans believed in original sin, which meant to them that they needed to combat the natural depravity of the child by breaking his or her will. Discipline to eradicate stubbornness and replace it with obedience started in infancy. In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards differed from many earlier clergy by advocating constant discipline without physical force. He sought cheerful obedience from children, believing that obedience to parents would prepare the child for mature obedience to God. Both religious and medical experts exhorted parents to actively manage their child’s physical and social growth. Natural impulses, appetites, and desires were seen as animalistic and to be suppressed. One way parents accomplished this goal was by swaddling their infants wrapping them tightly in bands of cloth. Parents straightened the baby’s arms and legs, molding them to the desired shape and immobilizing them. (The newborn baby’s head was also sometimes molded into shape.) Swaddling seems harsh, and infants could be wrapped too tightly for too long, but the practice did keep babies warm and may have helped keep them safe when tended by other children. Following the advice of physicians, seventeenth-century parents did not want their children to crawl like animals, but to walk upright like humans. Swaddling straightened the infant’s legs like an adult’s and, at the age of six to nine months, the child was unswaddled and placed in a standing stool. This was a simple device, perhaps made from a hollowed tree trunk, which held the child upright and immobile. The child could not sit, and so could become too tired, but he or she also was kept off the cold, dirty floor. A slightly older child would be placed in a walking stool, a similar device that kept him or her upright, but which had wheels to allow movement from place to place, increasing both autonomy and the risk of accidents. Seventeenth-century children dressed in clothing that looked like smaller versions of adult clothing. Surviving paintings show small boys in petticoats or long skirts, looking much as their mothers or sisters did. Boys were breeched around the age of six or seven, when they gave up skirts and dressed in pants like adult men. Nothing in either boys’ or girls’ wardrobe was designed specifically for children, a situation that would change during the eighteenth century. Early Childhood Perceptual Development LIVESTRONG.COM holidaymapq

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