Bringing Up Baby

by L.L. Neuru

Most parents today are very concerned about the proper care for their newborn Baby and children. Almost everyone has heard of Dr. Spock's famous book, even if one hasn't actually read it. The Roman parents were no less concerned about their new Baby. There were several authors, such as the famous medical writers, Soranus and Galen of the early Imperial period, who wrote books on the raising of children and the care of babies, who devoted much time and energy to advising parents. Here is some of their advice on bringing up Baby. Infant care started with the health of the mother, even before she was married: the prospective groom's family was advised to have her examined to see if she was healthy. The prospective bride, who was all of 12-14 when she was married off, was also supposed to have a suitably calm and demeure personality, which was considered to be good for childbearing. Of course her teeth should be inspected. When the young couple wanted to conceive, the wife was urged to lay back, keep quite still, and think noble thoughts about her husband, his family and the Empire. Failure to do this might prevent conception, or produce a less than perfect child. When the young mother managed to live through this and conceive, she was advised to continue thinking noble thoughts; there was danger that the Baby might be 'marked' in some way by bad thoughts. For example, if she wanted cabbage, it was imperative that she should have some, so she wouldn't think further about it, otherwise the child would turn out to look like a cabbage. And she was sternly advised not to think about men other than her own husband: what noble family wanted the new Baby to resemble the milkman? When the time for birth came, a doctor was summoned; large cities had something resembling clinics, but respectable families had housecalls from doctors; some even had their own resident doctors. And of course the doctor called to deliver Baby would be a woman: no respectable Roman woman would even dream of having a male doctor. There are many women doctors attested in the epigraphical evidence; grateful families and cities even erected statues of them. The doctor was urged to do everything to make the mother comfortable and ease the birth. For example, childbirth was most often done in a sitting position which was considered easiest for the mother; it has only recently begun to be used again in a few places where it has again become fashionable to pay attention to the health and comfort of the mother. Baby's first moments determined whether he would live or die. Deformed children were generally let die at birth, and although this seems distasteful, one must bear in mind that in an age without antibiotics or effective corrective surgical techniques, many deformities and abnormalities so easily corrected today meant certain death then. The decision, of course, was made by the father. Reluctance to allow women any part in the control over themselves and their own children has been going on for countless centuries. One Baby was past his first few moments he got a bath in warm water. In some parts of the eastern Empire ice cold water was used, as a test to see if the Baby was healthy. The Roman medics were considerably more sensible, at least on this point. Baby was washed, hung by the ankles (not to drip-dry, but to straighten the spinal cord), and then swaddled. It was widely believed that Baby joints were to weak to be left unsupported without swaddling, so strips of linen (wool was too absorbant, and cotton, or xylinum, was rare) were cut and the Baby was wrapped around, taking care to straighten all the limbs first, binding legs straight and arms securely at the sides. An opening was of course left at the strategic spot. The resulting little bundle (not of joy!) looked something like a mummified voodoo doll. This practice continued for centuries, and most people have probably seen stiff little babies in Medieval and Renaissance art. Baby was supposed to have a bath every day, in warm water. At this time the swaddling was removed, and left off if diaper rash was a problem. Special massaging was given to Baby after the bath, but it wasn't exactly the enjoyable and relaxing sort most of us think of today when we hear the word massage. The purpose was to form Baby's limbs and various bodily parts. A noble, aquiline nose was wanted, so the standard Baby button was pulled and tweaked to shape it; likewise the head was pushed and pummeled to give it a suitable rounded shape. All the joints had to be massaged and the joints worked around in their sockets, since of course Baby was too weak to do this for himself. Special care was taken with noble little boys, who would be spending time in the bath house with other noble Romans. Because they would be seen nude, special consideration was given to certain areas of the Baby boy's body, and even that was yanked, twisted, pulled and otherwise assaulted in the name of future male beauty. Potty training was a big event, and the medical writers discuss various sorts of foods to aid Baby's digestion. Archaeological evidence has also elucidated this part of Baby's education: ancient potty chairs were bowls, with holes for little legs in front, and all mounted on a stand. Baby could be put in this, given a crustulum or crepitaculum, and be left. No one had to watch little brothers or sisters and keep them on the potty chair until done. Learning to walk was important too, and Baby was given extra help, which was probably needed after spending the first year or so mummified. Soranus describes a little chair with wheels into which Baby could be securely put. This sounds very familiar, and one can imagine the little Roman two-year old in it, and whizzing around the peristyle after the cat or dog.