HEALTH - Part Four

The health of adults and their fitness for life depends very heavily on good baby and child care, and sensible nutrition. Babies nowadays thrive on formula feeds, tinned baby dinners and food magically pureed in the food processor; they crawl around in disposable nappies, dressed only in one or two layers of man-made materials in centrally heated homes. But things were very different for our grandmothers when the daily nappy wash often started with a trip to the well; and if breast milk was unavailable or unsuitable, the problems of feeding a tiny baby required enormous imagination and hours of time.

In the last of this series on health, we recall how babies and children used to be cared for at home, and how even without today's sterile conditions, short cuts and easy feeding, babies still managed to survive the cold and damp of Lakeland cottages to healthy adulthood and a life expectancy well into the seventies and often eighties and nineties.

Fortunately for most new born babies, women this century rejected Victorian prudishness and returned to breast feeding, which not only supplied adequate nutrition but cut down on the dangers caused by dirty feeding bottles. However, some babies couldn't be breast fed, and for them it was lucky that by the early years of this century, basic knowledge about hygiene ensured that even village women knew the need for sterilising baby bottles:

"We had a bowl using sterilised water, bottles were sterilised with boiling water and after we had Milton in a large enamel bowl with muslin over the top to keep it all spotless."

Babies were fed exclusively on breast and cows' milk for far longer than they are today. Milk was spooned into them or fed in a cup with a special spout on it, and it was eight or nine months before solid food was introduced, compared with the first taste of baby rice or mashed banana or potato at only four months nowadays. Feeding a baby who couldn't take ordinary milk was a serious problem in the days when there were no powdered milks or alternative baby foods available:

"She couldn't take milk, got very irritable, very difficult, she screamed and screamed...acidosis I suppose, it was the protein in milk, and after it was discovered, she wasn't to have any milk. She could have cream, which always amazed everybody, and she was fed on things like barley water, even as a tiny baby. The nurses all got together about this, because they knew more about it, the district nurses were awfully nice people...

"She had it augmented, one meal would be a little beef tea in a bottle, you can imagine how easy that was! Barley water was one thing between meals, and then she had fruit juice, orange juice, chiefly grape juice. All these things were difficult to obtain, you had to squeeze them by hand and when we got on to meals, there was nothing to help, we sieved all that, there were none of these nice purees, you couldn't open a tin of that..."

A tapped water supply and the arrival of Milton disinfectant came as a great relief to mothers who formerly had to carry water from the pump or well every day for the nappy wash:

"We had an awful lot of nappies to wash and we washed them by hand! We kept them permanently in a bucket with a lid with some water and some Milton in, dropped them in and let them soak, you had to be careful to get all the soap out."

Monday wash day took place each week as usual, but nappies were washed every day:

"One of the first things I did every day was wash the nappies and hang them out in the garden, woe betide you if it was raining! We had a wooden creel that you pulled up over the kitchen stove."

Babies were dressed in layers and layers of clothing to keep them warm and dry. First of all came a woolly vest and nappy.A thin muslin nappy was placed next to the baby's skin, with a big,rougher nappy worn over it:

"Then you had hand-knitted woolly pants pulled on over the nappy, and a thing that was sort of flannel, a huge long flannel thing which was quilted in the body, wrapped over and tied with a thick ribbon and it was embroidered round the edge...then you had your other cotton robes, and the night ones were like a nightie, long ones you see; then come over that, a sheet petticoat as we called it, a woolly one, a flannel one and then the cotton or lawn, lovely frocks. People took a lot of trouble, special ones, the robes. And always a bonnet, so pretty, some of them."

The lick-and-a-promise method of washing a small baby by topping and tailing it, night and morning, was more popular in cold little houses than the full baby bath, and mothers almost certainly would have thought too much bathing to be unhealthy in families where nobody bathed more than once a week.

But in houses were there was a special baby bath, it was usually placed on a low table, with the mother or nurse sitting on a low nursing chair by the side. However, in some North country villages, washing the children in the winter months was unheard of because they were sewn into their clothes from autumn until spring:

"They used to sew their children in during the autumn. They had a sewing-in day. They sewed them into their clothes and left them there till spring. They were sewn in for warmth. They thought they would die of cold otherwise. With only enough freedom left to answer the calls of nature, the sewn-up children soon smelt very distinctive:

"They were filthy. That was nothing in those days. You had to be quite strong minded to go into the houses because they rather smelt, although they were so clean on the outside, they scrubbed their steps and whitened the edges."

Its probably fair to conclude that only the fittest survived a country babyhood, and consequently most grew into strong children able to tolerate the usual childhood complaints of measles and chicken pox. Children were regularly dosed with cod liver oil, Virol, brimstone and treacle, and malt. There was goose grease for a bad chest, Easterledge pudding in spring to clear the blood and dozens of old remedies for every ailment. Just occasionally, a small town would suffer the tragic consequences of something like a polio outbreak:

"It was during my schooldays, but I don't remember exactly when...I can remember a bad epidemic of polio that killed quite a few children here in Ambleside, and there's a number left ...that are still quite crippled. But it was really drastic, was that, it went for young boys in particular, quite a number of families were struck and the odd boy went and very often it was an only son."

The source of the outbreak was never discovered or even discussed:

"It just seemed to be taken for granted, and it went through the village, we don't know whether it was connected with school, but you couldn't say it was homes, it wasn't just one part of Ambleside that had it...they had one later on at Windermere but that seemed to be centred round houses not very far from the station. I never found out what caused that. You don't know whether they did any research in those days into things, but they wouldn't have published it, anyway, would they?"

Perhaps child health and care seventy years ago was nearer to being the Bad Old Days, and certainly not a subject for affectionate nostalgia?