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It’s 6 a.m. and the alarm blares from an iPhone. The furnace, set with a programmable thermostat, clicks on. It’s time for the morning rush of a shower, feeding the baby and older kids, running to the school bus and dropping off the youngest at a daycare center before dashing to make the 7:30 train to work.

Three centuries ago, this morning would have looked far different. Depending on their wealth and social status, children in Colonial America and 18th century England might be cared for by their mothers, a nursemaid or nanny, who would cook breakfast on an open hearth, which would also serve as their heat source. Some children would begin school when they were around 6, while others would begin work in the fields or helping around the house at that age.


Childbirth and Babies

Childbirth and early childhood were far more dangerous than it is today. In London, infant and child mortality more than doubled from the 16th to the middle of the 18th century in all economic classes, according to an article in the London Journal. By the mid-1700s, nearly two-thirds of children died by their fifth birthday, often from disease. This is why many families had six, eight or even more children.


Midwives attended to mothers as they gave birth at home with no anesthesia except some whiskey. The maternal mortality rate was about 25 deaths per 1,000 births, according to the journal Medical History. Today, the maternal mortality rate is much lower in developed countries, but still high in developing countries. In the U.S. there is a stark racial difference in maternity rates, with 42 of 100,000 black mothers dying in childbirth, compared with 12 of 100,000 white women.


Today, parents and caregivers have tools to take care of children like sound machines to make sure their children sleep undisturbed, but in the 1700s it was common to give babies a little bit of whiskey if they were sick or woke up a lot throughout the night. However, in either instance, it's still important to have a steady schedule with any baby, especially if you're doing something out of the ordinary like traveling. Today’s families sometimes take their babies and older kids on camping trips, which with their campfires and reduced reliance on electricity can give them a sense of what it was like to live in the 1700s.


In poor families, the mother was the children’s primary caregiver. But with her responsibilities to run the household and perhaps work on a farm as well, it fell to older siblings, perhaps as young as 5 or 6, to care for their younger brothers and sisters.


Wealthier families were able to hire nannies. In fact, the first recorded use of the word “nanny” was in 1785 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of course, the profession was around for much longer, and throughout the 18th century, many nannies were referred to as nursemaids. Caregivers who breastfed children were called wet nurses. Nannies generally lived with the families and stayed with them from their teens through old age, caring for several generations of children. Nannies also assisted in housekeeping and cleaning.


During the 18th century, extended families lived together, so that grandparents were in the same house. Sometimes it fell on grandmothers to care for their children’s children.


While middle and lower-class women worked to take care of their household and children, they did have the financial support of their husbands. During this period, there were very few single mothers, and most were shunned. Today, of course, there are many single mothers, who work full-time jobs, keep up the household and take their young children to daycare or preschool. While there aren’t any figures on the cost of raising children in the 1700s, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture estimates that today it costs about $200,000 to raise a child to the age of 18.

Caregiving Advice

During the 18th century, some of the first childcare advice books were written. While some of the advice, such as advocating breastfeeding, is still given today, other information shows how the understanding of raising children has changed over the centuries.


For example, just after birth, many babies were washed in a mixture of warm water, wine or ale, and butter. Dr. William Smellie’s 1752 book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, advocated using plain soap and water or milk mixed with water. While that may be sound advice, he advocated bleeding a child from the jugular vein for teething problems.


English physician Dr. William Cadogan’s 1748 text, An Essay Upon Nursing and the Management of Children, tells readers that women are unfit to make childcare decisions. He also advocates for a strict upbringing that allows for no food indulgences, which “foul their blood, choke their vessels, pall their appetite, and ruin every faculty of their bodies.” He also believed that children should be able to walk two miles at age 2.


While childcare has evolved since the 18th century, one constant has been the desire to nurture children to become strong, healthy adults.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.