Truby King

king rooms

In 1915, the year of Second Ypres and Loos, there were fewer British soldiers killed on the battlefields than there were British children who died in infancy.
This resonant statistic is at the heart of Trudi Tate’s essay on Truby King and postwar childcare in the recent essay collection The Silent Morning.
Truby King was a New Zealander invited to Britain in 1917 contribute to the campaigns to improve infant help. with systematic and definite ideas about the raising of children. For him, precise routine was all, especially in the matter of feeding. Babies should be breast-fed for the first nine months, and the feeding (like every other aspect of a baby’s life) should be done to a strict timetable. A feed every four hours, with no night feeding. If the baby cried for food at an inappropriate time, or just cried for attention, he or she should never be spoilt, but must be left to ‘cry it out’.
Mothers were warned not to play with their babies, or cuddle them, or talk to them, as this could lead to over-stimulation. Instead, they were told to put the baby in a pram at the end of the garden between feeds, in all weathers, to ensure that he or she had plenty of fresh air, and never mind the screaming.
The popularity of King’s method was notable, and Trudi Tate links it to the perceived state of the post-war world:

Babies born after the Armistice come into what seems a formless, unpredictable world. In the many families which take up the Truby King method, babies’ tiny lives are vigorously regulated, thus providing a comforting illusion of structure – a ‘container’ which at least makes the adults feel more secure.

The War was a time of regulation and restriction, of censorship, of rationing and the curtailing of licensing hours. Many saw these not as negative impositions but as providing unregulated society with the discipline it needed. Middle-class readers had treasured Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand, a memoir of military training with a subtext of satisfaction that bolshy Glasgow trades unionists could be turned into obedient and efficient soldiers. In the early twenties there was an undercurrent of nostalgia for the certainties of wartime, and Truby King and the nurses he trained (called Plunkett nurses after King’s aristocratic patrons) offered a promise of certainty at a time when parents’ lives were being rendered uncertain by the disruption of an undisciplined screaming infant.
The better-off could afford to hire a Plunkett nurse to do the uncomfortable job of ignoring a baby’s cry; the less well-off were lectured that they had to do it themselves, and to control their caring instincts in order to give their child the start in life that it deserved. many found it very difficult.
Did the fashion for discipline do much to reduce the death statistics? Doubtless there were some chaotic households that were made less so by the imposition of routine, but keeping a baby to a timetable could not solve the real problems that led to those shocking mortality figures. These were structural social factors – poverty, overcrowding, inadequate housing and appalling inadequacies of sanitation. It was the gradual improvement of these over the twentieth century that eventually brought the infant mortality figures down.
My daughter is currently studying for an M.A. in Childhood Studies, and read Trudi Tate’s article avidly. ‘It’s just the same today,’ she said. ‘Blame the parents and take attention away from the real problems that are facing families.’
Truby King himself started out as a farmer in New Zealand. Caring for his calves, he found that a regular feeding pattern increased their survival rate, and then applied the same idea to human infants. He was a persuasive man, but his success must have come from the fact that he was telling people what they wanted to hear – offering a simple answer to a difficult problem.
Trudi Tate uses subtle accounts of childhood by Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen to contrast with King’s, and you’d have thought by now that we’d have learnt more about what babies need. It seems, though, that there are still disciples of King around, such as Claire Verity, who has even been denounced by Gina Ford, herself no mean child-regulator. Doubtless such experts speak to certain modern anxieties, just as King did to those of his age.


  1. Posted January 18, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting article! It makes me appreciate the strength in ideology that allows belief to triumph over experience.

  2. janevsw
    Posted January 18, 2014 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I posted a link to this on Facebook, George, and one of my friends commented, “Have you read L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside? I now realise that the novel refers obliquely and extensively to Truby King!”

    I gather that Rilla, whose brothers are fighting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, finds herself trying to bring up a baby orphaned as a result of the Great War.

    Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on Rilla of Ingleside calls it “the only Canadian novel written from a woman’s perspective about the First World War by a contemporary”.

    • Posted January 18, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

      I read ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ a few years ago, with much pleasure, but without much thought for the child-rearing methods.
      I’ve taken another look, and think your Facebook friend is absolutely right. Rilla brings up baby Jims according to a book called ‘Morgan on Infants’, whose advice is very like King’s. A strict feeding routine (and ‘a Morganized diet from a carefully sterilized spoon’), no spoiling or excitement, and the child must not be bounced or cuddled too much. Morgan disapproves of cradles, and the only place that a baby should be kissed is on the forehead, because of germs. And ‘children have to cry so many minutes per day in order to expand their lungs. Morgan says so.’
      Opposed to Morgan is Susan, full of rich, kindly experience and common sense. Rilla’s instincts, too, work against the book’s advice:

      Rilla curled herself up in her bed and determined she would let him cry. She had Morgan behind her for justification. Jims was warm, physically comfortable–his cry wasn’t the cry of pain–and had his little tummy as full as was good for him. Under such circumstances it would be simply spoiling him to fuss over him, and she wasn’t going to do it. He could cry until he got good and tired and ready to go to sleep again.

      Then Rilla’s imagination began to torment her. Suppose, she thought, I was a tiny, helpless creature only five months old, with my father somewhere in France and my poor little mother, who had been so worried about me, in the graveyard. Suppose I was lying in a basket in a big, black room, without one speck of light, and nobody within miles of me, for all I could see or know. [….] Wouldn’t I cry, too? Wouldn’t I feel just so lonely and forsaken
      and frightened that I’d have to cry?

      Rilla hopped out. She picked Jims out of his basket and took him into her own bed. His hands were cold, poor mite. But he had promptly ceased to cry. And then, as she held him close to her in the darkness, suddenly Jims laughed–a real, gurgly, chuckly, delighted, delightful laugh.

      Thanks for reminding me of this novel. It’s been a pleasure to look at it again.

  3. janevsw
    Posted January 19, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I’m ashamed never to have read it myself – yet. Must fix that.

  4. Posted January 19, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been looking up contemporary press reports about Truby King. This is an extract from a Manchester Guardian report of King lecturing the north of England on how to reduce infant mortality. It’s notable how he blames everything on the mother and what happens inside the room, while underestimating the air pollution of a city like Manchester, and how he insists that living in a slum is no bar to growing up healthily. Had he actually taken a look at any Manchester slums?:

    truby king fresh air

  5. Jonquil
    Posted January 20, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    The final paragraph from the Mancheter Guardian could be lifted straight from an Iain Duncan Smith speech!

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: