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.