November 12th is Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘s birthday. Stanton has gone down in history as a tireless fighter for women’s rights who spoke her mind and would not be cowed. She was also a tender and loving mother who didn’t tolerate nonsense concerning child-rearing. The following excerpt relates her experiences caring for her first-born.

…I had been thinking, reading, observing, and had as little faith in the popular theories in regard to babies as on any other subject. I saw them, on all sides, ill half the time, pale and peevish, dying early, having no joy in life. I heard parents complaining of weary days and sleepless nights, while each child, in turn, ran the gauntlet of red gum, jaundice, whooping cough, chicken-pox, mumps, measles, scarlet fever, and fits. They all seemed to think these inflictions were a part of the eternal plan–that Providence had a kind of Pandora’s box, from which he scattered these venerable diseases most liberally among those whom he especially loved. Having gone through the ordeal of bearing a child, I was determined, if possible, to keep him, so I read everything I could find on the subject. But the literature on this subject was as confusing and unsatisfactory as the longer and shorter catechisms and the Thirty-nine Articles of our faith. I had recently visited our dear friends, Theodore and Angelina Grimke-Weld, and they warned me against books on this subject. They had been so misled by one author, who assured them that the stomach of a child could only hold one tablespoonful, that they nearly starved their firstborn to death. Though the child dwindled, day by day, and, at the end of a month, looked like a little old man, yet they still stood by the distinguished author. Fortunately, they both went off, one day, and left the child with Sister “Sarah,” who thought she would make an experiment and see what a child’s stomach could hold, as she had grave doubts about the tablespoonful theory. To her surprise the baby took a pint bottle full of milk, and had the sweetest sleep thereon he had known in his earthly career. After that he was permitted to take what he wanted, and “the author” was informed of his libel on the infantile stomach.

So here, again, I was entirely afloat, launched on the seas of doubt without chart or compass. The life and well-being of the race seemed to hang on the slender thread of such traditions as were handed down by ignorant mothers and nurses. One powerful ray of light illuminated the darkness; it was the work of Andrew Combe on “Infancy.” He had, evidently watched some of the manifestations of man in the first stages of his development, and could tell, at least, as much of babies as naturalists could of beetles and bees. He did give young mothers some hints of what to do, the whys and wherefores of certain lines of procedure during antenatal life, as well as the proper care thereafter. I read several chapters to the nurse. Although, out of her ten children, she had buried five, she still had too much confidence in her own wisdom and experience to pay much attention to any new idea that might be suggested to her. Among other things, Combe said that a child’s bath should be regulated by the thermometer, in order to be always of the same temperature. She ridiculed the idea, and said her elbow was better than any thermometer, and, when I insisted on its use, she would invariably, with a smile of derision, put her elbow in first, to show how exactly it tallied with the thermometer. When I insisted that the child should not be bandaged, she rebelled outright, and said she would not take the responsibility of nursing a child without a bandage. I said, “Pray, sit down, dear nurse, and let us reason together. Do not think I am setting up my judgment against yours, with all your experience. I am simply trying to act on the opinions of a distinguished physician, who says there should be no pressure on a child anywhere; that the limbs and body should be free; that it is cruel to bandage an infant from hip to armpit, as is usually done in America; or both body and legs, as is done in Europe; or strap them to boards, as is done by savages on both continents. Can you give me one good reason, nurse, why a child should be bandaged?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically, “I can give you a dozen.”

“I only asked for one,” I replied.

“Well,” said she, after much hesitation, “the bones of a newborn infant are soft, like cartilage, and, unless you pin them up snugly, there is danger of their falling apart.”

“It seems to me.” I replied, “you have given the strongest reason why they should be carefully guarded against the slightest pressure. It is very remarkable that kittens and puppies should be so well put together that they need no artificial bracing, and the human family be left wholly to the mercy of a bandage. Suppose a child was born where you could not get a bandage, what then? Now I think this child will remain intact without a bandage, and, if I am willing to take the risk, why should you complain?”

“Because,” said she, “if the child should die, it would injure my name as a nurse. I therefore wash my hands of all these new-fangled notions.”

So she bandaged the child every morning, and I as regularly took it off. It has been fully proved since to be as useless an appendage as the vermiform…

…Besides the obstinacy of the nurse, I had the ignorance of physicians to contend with. When the child was four days old we discovered that the collar bone was bent. The physician, wishing to get a pressure on the shoulder, braced the bandage round the wrist. “Leave that,” he said, “ten days, and then it will be all right.” Soon after he left I noticed that the child’s hand was blue, showing that the circulation was impeded. “That will never do,” said I; “nurse, take it off.” “No, indeed,” she answered, “I shall never interfere with the doctor.” So I took it off myself, and sent for another doctor, who was said to know more of surgery. He expressed great surprise that the first physician called should have put on so severe a bandage. “That,” said he, “would do for a grown man, but ten days of it on a child would make him a cripple.” However, he did nearly the same thing, only fastening it round the hand instead of the wrist. I soon saw that the ends of the fingers were all purple, and that to leave that on ten days would be as dangerous as the first. So I took that off.

“What a woman!” exclaimed the nurse. “What do you propose to do?”

“Think out something better, myself; so brace me up with some pillows and give the baby to me.”

She looked at me aghast and said, “You’d better trust the doctors, or your child will be a helpless cripple.”

“Yes,” I replied, “he would be, if we had left either of those bandages on, but I have an idea of something better.”

“Now,” said I, talking partly to myself and partly to her, “what we want is a little pressure on that bone; that is what both those men aimed at. How can we get it without involving the arm, is the question?”

“I am sure I don’t know,” said she, rubbing her hands and taking two or three brisk turns round the room.

“Well, bring me three strips of linen, four double.” I then folded one, wet in arnica and water, and laid it on the collar bone, put two other bands, like a pair of suspenders, over the shoulders, crossing them both in front and behind, pinning the ends to the diaper, which gave the needed pressure without impeding the circulation anywhere. As I finished she gave me a look of budding confidence, and seemed satisfied that all was well. Several times, night and day, we wet the compress and readjusted the bands, until all appearances of inflammation had subsided.

At the end of ten days the two sons of Aesculapius appeared and made their examination and said all was right, whereupon I told them how badly their bandages worked and what I had done myself. They smiled at each other, and one said:

“Well, after all, a mother’s instinct is better than a man’s reason.”

“Thank you, gentlemen, there was no instinct about it. I did some hard thinking before I saw how I could get a pressure on the shoulder without impeding the circulation, as you did.”

Thus, in the supreme moment of a young mother’s life, when I needed tender care and support, I felt the whole responsibility of my child’s supervision; but though uncertain at every step of my own knowledge, I learned another lesson in self-reliance. I trusted neither men nor books absolutely after this, either in regard to the heavens above or the earth beneath, but continued to use my “mother’s instinct,” if “reason” is too dignified a term to apply to woman’s thoughts. My advice to every mother is, above all other arts and sciences, study first what relates to babyhood, as there is no department of human action in which there is such lamentable ignorance.

Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 by
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) New York: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898.

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2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Cady Stanton on Babies

  1. What an amazing woman Cady Stanton was. This excerpt was especially poignant to me, as my daughter and her newborn baby just went through a similar experience. Jess
    wouldn’t accept that this was the best she could expect and her tenacious research led to an answer the specialists missed. And to think we were in Cady Stanton’s house and sat and talked on her porch!

    1. Interesting that we haven’t come all that far in our relationship with medical “authorities.” I remember the pediatrician telling me to keep my 5 month old infant daughter on formula even though she gobbled it down and was fretful afterward. I finally added baby cereal to her diet and I had different child. Never told the doctor though.

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