Janet Golden on Babies Made Us Modern
Jun 4 2018

BabiesModern.jpg Historian and author Janet Golden talks about her book, Babies Made Us Modern, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Golden chronicles the transformation of parenting in first half of the 20th century. It's a fascinating story of how our knowledge of infant health and behavior grew dramatically but remains imperfect. At the same time, government, business, and private organizations responded to that imperfect knowledge.

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Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

"...because babies are not verbal, and their range of motion is limited, that we don't quite know what they're thinking and doing and how they're developing. We think we do. We've got some mass data. But we don't really know about our own infants. And so, what happens over the 20th century is that there's more and more surveillance of infants' psychological development, as we get more and more certain that they are going to live. And that is a big transformation."

 

READER COMMENTS

Luke Juarez
Jun 6 2018 at 8:20am

What a wacky people we are. I wonder what will be said of us in another 100 years.

Mike F.
Jun 10 2018 at 6:26am

An interesting read on how children are socialized (how they develop behaviors acceptable to their various societies) and how they develop their own unique behaviors is a book called “No Two Alike” by Judith Rich Harris. It also hypothesizes that parents have a pretty limited effect on the final product.

Adam
Jun 10 2018 at 7:40am

How did pre-21st century mothers feel about themselves and their infants? Anne Bradstreet’s beautiful poetry from colonial Massachusetts gives us insight:

“Before the Birth of One of Her Children”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46450/before-the-birth-of-one-of-her-children

In Memory of My Dear Grandchild Elizabeth Bradstreet, Who Deceased August, 1665, Being a Year and Half Old”

https://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/old_school/anne_bradstreet/

Comments are closed.


DELVE DEEPER

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:


AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS

 

Time
Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33

Intro. [Recording date: May 17, 2018.]

Russ Roberts: My guest is Janet Golden.... Her latest book, which is the topic of today's conversation, is Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought Americans into the 20th Century.... This book's a really fascinating portrait of a piece of American social history which of course many of us are aware of in general outline. We know that the way we treat babies and the way they treat us has changed over the last hundred years. But, your book really brings home how credibly dramatic that change has been, in a relatively short period of time. And in creating that portrait, talk about what your goals were and how you went about finding the information that you share in the book, your methodology. Because, you looked at some sources that economists certainly don't usually look at, and even some historians don't get to.

Janet Golden: Thanks. I started this book, originally, with a friend of mine; and we thought we'd write a kind of a fun, happy, commercial book. And then she had to drop the project because she was busy being a dean at a university. And, the more I kept digging into readings about children and defining fun stuff about babies, the more I realized: Infants are truly economic actors. They really bring Americans into the world of commercial culture, into modern psychology, into familiarity with advertising. And the way I discovered that was truly serendipitous. I was talking with a colleague at the History of Medicine Meetings, and he said, 'You know, here[?] at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], we have a collection of baby books--books that mothers filled in, day after day, year after year. Sometimes they made a few entries. Sometimes they made a lot.' And he gets online every day and he buys baby books on E-Bay. And so they've amassed several thousand in their collection. And they are truly a wonderful source about everything. I could have written another three books about what they had to say. But, I had to stop myself. And, I will say that I did put my children's baby books in that archive as well, because I thought it was such a terrific collection. But, for economists, I think the story of babies is just wonderful. I didn't realize it when I started. But, babies are really all about connecting their families to the modern economy in the 20th century. And I didn't expect to find so much about banking, insurance, finance, purchasing. But, that's what they're all about.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And the vast amount of advice given by a vast array of interested and sometimes disinterested observers is--it's pretty daunting, I assume. I mean, you accumulated a huge amount of information.

Janet Golden: I did. I tried to stay away from saying too much about the advice to parents--of which there's a vast literature--and instead record what the parents had to say about their infants. And, of course, people didn't always obey the advice--let's put it that way. They fed their baby things that baby advisers would say is not a good idea. My favorite anecdote in there is, of course, the one about the one about the baby book that said, 'Today I smoked my first cigarette.' [Econlib Editor's note: In baby books, first tense is commonly used to articulate experiences by the parent on behalf of the baby. E.g., 'Today I spoke my first word' instead of 'Today, my baby spoke his first word.'] And then he added, 'Twenty one years later, I'm still smoking.'

Russ Roberts: Woo hoo.

Janet Golden: Yes. So, you find a lot of fascinating material in there. Or, the 7-month-old baby who had the full Thanksgiving meal: the turkey, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce. Lots and lots of really fascinating material about how babies really live, not about how they were supposed to live.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That cigarette story reminds me of when my wife was shopping with our daughter, who was maybe, I don't know, 6 months old at the time; and she ran into a friend, and then she went and grabbed something from a shelf. She came back to see our daughter smiling the most ecstatic smile; and that's because this other woman that my wife had run into had given her her first piece of chocolate. Which, my wife was not happy about. But, my daughter sure was. I don't know about that first cigarette. But there is a lot of serendipitous stuff in life like that going on, inevitably.

Janet Golden: Right. And the other fun thing about it is that you get to see how immigrant folkways and foodways really come to America. So, well, historians find that medical advisers used to complain a lot about Italian immigrants: 'Here they are. They are feeding their children fresh fruits and vegetables. Isn't that terrible?' And, of course, nowadays that's what we're supposed to be eating. So, it's kind of fun to see how the babies and their immigrant parents really change America that way, as well.

6:17

Russ Roberts: I was struck--a number of things struck me while reading the book that I hope we'll get to talk about. One of them was just how dramatically life has changed--for mothers in particular, and for babies in particular. Of course, by, along the way for fathers and siblings and society at large. But this one sentence struck me as a dramatic example. It says: As a scholarly study of Buffalo, New York's--Italian community at the turn of the century--explained: 60-89% of women over 30 had lost at least at one child. And among Polish women in the city, the rate was at least as high. The rate of infant mortality was--it's just hard for us to relate to how perilous life was. And we'll get into the particulars, of why it was particularly perilous. But, it's just hard to remember. Obviously, women died at a much more fearsome rate in childbirth. But the infant mortality rate is just--it's just shocking how high it was. And it makes you reflect on what that must have done to life, and how people dealt with it and thought about it. And it's just incredibly powerful.

Janet Golden: It is truly a triumph of the 20th century that in the developed world we've been able to so dramatically lower our infant mortality rate. And, a lot of that really began in the late 19th century, of course with things like clean water supplies. Later on with milk pasteurization laws. With sewage and sanitation--sort of the big infrastructure projects, that we've mostly forgotten about. But really had a dramatic effect on infant lives, children's lives, life-expectancy. And then, the second phase of that really comes in the 20th century when we began giving people pretty sound advice about infant care, around the idea of, 'Let's get rid of germs. Let's avoid germs. Let's keep milk clean, or refrigerated.' Pretty basic ideas that are second-nature to us now, but that really had to be taught to people.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, and we'll talk about that. I found that extremely interesting. I just want to mention in passing that--I may have mentioned this poem once before; nah, I didn't; I think it was on a different program, different activity of mine--but it's called "The First Snowfall," by James Russell Lowell; and we'll put a link up to it. It's one of my favorite sentimental poems. It's really an extraordinary piece of sentimentality, very powerful. And, it makes you wonder, as your data also makes me wonder, just how people felt about the loss of an infant. It was common. So, it wasn't--in some dimension it--it's tempting to think it was not as big a tragedy as it is now because it was common. And yet, it obviously was incredibly painful and heart-rending. And, at the same time, the other part of your book I want you to talk about while we're discussing this is the ability and necessity sometimes for women to sell their children for financial reasons, or to abandon them. The whole phenomenon on a foundling, which is a common motif of movies set around the late 19th century is just so alien to us. You still read about it once in a while--an abandoned baby is found in a train station somewhere, and it's a big news story. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was--I wouldn't call it commonplace, but it was not a rarity. Talk about that.

Janet Golden: Abandonment has had a long history, of course; and in Europe all of our hospitals that began for children really began as foundling asylums, run by religious orders, where people would drop off unwanted infants. In the United States, we also had foundling hospitals. And today we even--I know a number of fire stations, say, have a sign: You can drop off an unwanted infant here; no questions asked. But it was much more common in the late 19th, early 20th century for women to abandon infants on the steps of police stations, in front of churches. It wasn't an everyday occurrence, but it happened quite a bit. And the infants would be sent to institutions, where the mortality rate is, as I talked about, close to 100%. They just didn't have the means to care for them; they didn't have the means to feed them. And then, of course, once a baby had an infection it would spread from crib to crib and they might all die very quickly. So, that was a problem. Later on in the 20th century infants go from being unwanted to be highly desirable--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Desperately wanted--

Janet Golden: Desperately wanted, especially of course if they are not disabled and they are white. So we get into a different kind of marketplace, once that economists probably don't talk enough about; and that is: What will you pay for a baby? How do you go about buying one? What will you pay for one. And that's something that Kefauver hearings in the 1950s really brought to light. It was quite a booming industry--sub rosa, black market, illegal, quasi-legal. And the thing that impressed me most that really brought that home to me was a story in the New York Times about a mob organization that engaged in baby buying and selling, and the traditional racketeering was kind of a secondary enterprise for them. So, that tells you about how much money got involved in that. I think today there's probably some of that going on. I don't really study the world after the Baby Boomers. But, babies are highly prized now. That's not to say they are not still abandoned. And it's not to say that all babies are highly prized. But they really are, again, a part of the marketplace that we don't like to talk about. People used to pay to give them up to baby-farmers, who would kind of quickly dispatch them; and now we pay to buy them, in a sense, from adoption brokers.

Russ Roberts: Talk about what a baby farmer is. It's a terrible phrase. It's a really ugly phrase. But it was a thing. You said 'dispatch.' So, clarify that and tell us about baby farmers.

Janet Golden: Baby farmers--and that was a well-known phrase once--were women, often older women with no other means of earning an income, who took in babies to care for them full time. Some of them were well-meaning women who helped out other women who had to go to work in domestic service. Others engaged in a kind of understanding that the babies might not live. And when municipal authorities or newspaper reporters would do investigations of these baby farmers, they would find that they had either taken in the babies and then sent them to the poorhouse or the infant asylum to die, or that their back yards were filled with them, where they dug up the back yard and put the bodies in there. So, these babies would be--were not likely to live. But you could kind of soothe your conscience by saying, 'I didn't abandon my baby on the court house steps. I paid somebody to take it in.' But you must have known that, whether it was a baby farmer who was going to take good care of the baby or was a baby farmer who would oversee the child's burial. There were a lot of investigations, attempts to outlaw this. But, ironically, when you took babies away from baby farmers and sent them directly to institutions, they didn't fare any better. They really [?] better system of what we'll call foster care to make sure that those unwanted infants lived.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I couldn't help but think about Cosette and the Thénardiers in Les Mis. But--and you always think, 'Well, that's kind of a harsh portrait. But, you know, maybe not so inaccurate. It was just hard to keep babies alive.

15:11

Russ Roberts: I want to talk more about that, but one piece of that which you talk about in the book which I knew nothing about, which is utterly fascinating, is infant incubator displays. So, talk about what those were, and how they evolved. It was really crazy.

Janet Golden: Well, it's crazy, but it's fascinating; and that is infant incubators. We think of incubators for hatching eggs and not for already-hatched babies, but there they were. They are basically glass and metal boxes that kept babies warm and isolated so they weren't exposed to germs. They were for premature infants. Some of them would be fed by a milk dropper filled with milk or some other kind of tube-feeding, cared for by nurses. But, how do you pay for that kind of expensive care? Well, you put the babies on display--at a state fair or at a World's Fair, where they began in the United States in 1898 in the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition. But they appeared at every other World's Fair. People paid a quarter to go in and look at the babies; and that money helps pay for their care. And the last of them survives until World War II on Coney Island, New York, where it was said that some women sort of had a favorite baby and they'd pay every day to go in and look at it and see how it was doing. But eventually, as we know, incubators become hospital technologies in those neonatal intensive care units, so it's--you don't have to pay to see them any more. And we think of those medical technologies, not as display items. The best place to get a sense of that is when we had the TV show Boardwalk Empire, if you remember that: the Mayor of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson, would go down to the Boardwalk and look at the babies in the incubators there. It was kind of a wonderful TV moment, teaching us a little bit of history, because Martin Scorsese does a lot of research for all of his historic work. So, yes, we had baby incubators; and they were display items. I don't know if you know any, have any relatives who grew up in New York or on the New Jersey Boardwalk in Atlantic City, but your older relatives might remember seeing the babies.

Russ Roberts: It's just the weirdest thing. I mean, that--you quote a young boy who goes through the exhibit and is just a little bit disappointed that they don't do anything. It reminds me of when you go to the zoo and the lions are asleep. At least you saw one, but it's not doing anything. And you do want some action. The amount of action you get from a baby in an incubator is highly limited. There's not much to hope for there. But, as you point out, one number I wanted to read: you said at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California, "the incubator display took in $72,000 dollars." Which is nearly $1.7 million in today's dollars. It's extraordinary that--I don't think--it's not a Barnum thing, but people paid to see 'em.

Janet Golden: Well, let's go back and think about what you asked me about earlier. We had an incredibly high infant mortality rate. And the greatest driver of infant mortality, then and now, is prematurity. So, if you can find a way to keep premature infants alive, you are striking at something that every family, every person has probably experienced or heard about. So, to just go and see these simple boxes that probably looked like the incubator on the farm where you grew up, and say, 'But yes, it's keeping the babies alive,' that would seem marvelous to you even though those babies weren't doing anything too interesting. They weren't performers.

Russ Roberts: I like that point. Yeah. Of course, as you point out, most of them didn't stay alive for very long. So, we weren't really very good at figuring out how to keep those premature infants alive.

Janet Golden: Well, the ones in incubators--we think they fudged the data on how many survived, but they did pretty well, in part because of their own little boardwalk trick. And that is: By the time the infants got there, the weakest ones probably died. And then, they might not put them on display if they looked like they were likely to die. So, you kind of put the fighters in there. They did survive. And you could go back day after day and see them growing a little bit until they finally get discharged. So, yes, it was a little bit of boardwalk trickery. But you got to see something that mattered to just about every American: they knew they had lost siblings; their parents told them about lost siblings. They knew people who had lost babies. So, what a wonderful piece of technology to gaze at.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's cool, even though there wasn't, like, as we said, not very much going on.

20:23

Russ Roberts: The other piece of the infant mortality puzzle, which again, I had never thought about--I knew how horrific the data, the numbers were for, say, 1900. I hadn't thought much about why they fell so dramatically. And part of the reason is that in 1900 we were really bad at keeping milk cold. And so, the summer in hot climates, the summer is a particularly dangerous time to be an infant.

Janet Golden: The summer was deadly. There were just babies dying all the time in the heat. They'd get an infection; they'd spread it to others in the household; and they would die. But the milk was a real problem. And that's they told women not to wean their babies in the summer. If you were breastfeeding, keep doing it until the cool weather comes. Because, if you think about it, it's a long way from the cow to the urban infant. You've got to collect the milk. Maybe the cans you collect it in have some germs; they are not cleaned out well. You put them on the wagon to take them to the milk depot at the train. They sit in the hot sun waiting for the train. They sit on the train. They get to town to the milk seller, and the milk seller sits by them and says, 'Gee, that smells pretty bad. Let me add some water, some adulterants to cover up the smell.' By the time you go and buy that loose milk, it's not too good. And even if you buy pretty good loose milk, if you don't have a way to keep it cold, if you can't afford the ice for the ice box, it's not going to do too well. If you don't have any running water in your tenement to clean those bottles, you're going to grow bacteria in them. So, it's a challenge, feeding babies. So, in the summer, babies died of what we called 'summer complaint,' which were these milk-borne bacterial illnesses. In the winter, we had different problems, and that's the respiratory illnesses that spread, as they still do, in the winter.

Russ Roberts: It's interesting--maybe I missed this. I know there's different moments in the book where you talk about, say, solid foods--the advice that parents are given about when to adopt solid foods and what kind. Zwieback--which is one of my favorite words; you don't see it very often--gets mentioned at least twice in your book. Maybe more. And, when I hear that word--I think you have to be old enough to appreciate it. I don't know if anybody still buys Zwieback. I'm sure they still make it somewhere.

Janet Golden: I'll have to look that one up.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a certain kind of thick cracker that is just--I can smell it right now. But, you'd think that this challenge with milk would have not just encouraged breastfeeding through the summer months, but breastfeeding for a long time. I find it interesting that--obviously, the commercial interests of formula makers and the milk industry encourage the adaptation[adoption?] of milk and formula. I found it interesting to think about why women didn't breastfeed a lot longer than I think they did. I might be wrong. Maybe they did. Again, I don't remember anywhere in the book where you talked about it. But I think--the impression I get is that women were eager to get their babies onto milk and formula, in the early 1900s, relative to today. And I wondered--given the dangers of milk--why they didn't delay that a little bit longer in those days. Or, do I have the facts wrong?

Janet Golden: It's really a social class phenomenon. Wealthier women, middle class women would wean their babies or even start their babies initially on bottle feeding maybe with a day nurse. Poor families, immigrant families breast fed for a lot longer. In part because it did function for a while as birth control. But it also what happens in poorer families, if you do have a large family, if you've just given birth to baby number 5 or 6 and you have 3 or 4 living children to take care, and you are washing those diapers by hand; you are keeping the farm going; you are going out to work or your husband is getting laid off from work and you've got to go out and do domestic service, you really don't have the luxury to keep on breastfeeding. So, there are different issues for different classes of women. But, the medical community was very incensed about upper class, middle class women who did not breast feed. They knew it was best. And yet, they were also the ones prescribing the formulas. So, it's kind of a conundrum there. They knew it was best, but their clients, their patients didn't want it. So, they helped them get the formulas. Preparing baby food is a challenge--was a challenge. You had to take those vegetables and mash them and puree them, themselves. And that's why apocryphally, Mrs. Gerber said to her husband, 'You know, putting these peas through the strainer is too hard.' It goes[?] from being a food company to being a baby food company, as they discover that there's a real market for already-made baby food.

Russ Roberts: I like that argument, that there was a prestige, I guess, to not breast feeding to show you are wealthy enough that you could afford to buy the milk or hire someone to feed the baby. And, now, I'm getting--I really wish you had mentioned the Gerber pea thing. I think that's worse[worth?] than Zwieback. I have a vivid memory of my little brother going through those little jars. But, there were colors--they should have picked a different color. That green-yellow--there was, like squash and peas. I would have picked a different--anyway.

26:37

Russ Roberts: Let's move on to something--let's actually stay related to this. Which is, one of the things that screams out in your book, although I don't think you talk about it explicitly, but it's so out in the open is that: We just so know so little about how to raise a child. The first part of the book is just about the physical side of that; and then toward the end of the book there's a chapter about the psychological development. And of course modern parents are obsessed with both of those things. We worry about whether the child is meeting the right milestones at the right places, and whether they are getting the right psychological preparation for adulthood; and it starts very young, that worry, for infants. And, what I was struck by is how little we know. And it's fascinating to me. It's just really hard.

Janet Golden: Well, we've--you know, I guess you could have some psychologists on there who would say, 'We know so much, and we've done so many experiments.' But I think that because babies are not verbal, and their range of motion is limited, that we don't quite know what they're thinking and doing and how they're developing. We think we do. We've got some mass data. But we don't really know about our own infants. And so, what happens over the 20th century is that there's more and more surveillance of infants' psychological development, as we get more and more certain that they are going to live. And that is a big transformation. Then, it's the question of: How are they going to live? What is their future going to be about? And so, it leads down all sorts of interesting paths. I talk a little bit about the popularity of astrology: you know, where would the stars align when your infant was born? For a while we went through phrenology, where we tried to measure the bumps and shapes of your head to say: What will that tell us about your personality and your intellect? And there's still a tradition in some ethnic communities, as there was historically, of putting different items on the floor and see which one the baby crawls to. Do they go to the Bible or the whiskey? Are they going to be a preacher or a drunkard? You know. You just want to know what the future holds for your infant. But, we begin to be taught by psychologists that we have to, you know, surveil our babies. When do they turn their heads to follow us? When do they respond to noise? How often do they cry? Can they self-soothe and go to sleep? What age do they start walking? What age do they start babbling? They are very, very scrutinized. And they probably don't give up as much information as we'd like. And, of course, there's some funny--not funny, really--but some experiments I talk about that psychologists conducted early on, like sticking a baby with a pin and seeing if it reacts. And, you know--in an era when diapers were kept together with pins, not little straps, of course, mothers would have been able to tell them: Yes, when you accidentally stab your baby with a pin, they do react.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's a stunning discovery of modern science.

Janet Golden: Yes. You might have been stabbed as an infant. Your children were not.

Russ Roberts: I was. Correct. The invention of Velcro and Pampers, one of the great inventions of the 20th century. I know there are people who think they are environmentally unfriendly and those are people I think who haven't thought quite enough about what cleaning a diaper does in re-using it, to the environment, which is not zero. I like the line--you said: a 1907 baby book included a line for recording the person--recording in this baby book the person who first carried an infant upstairs: The date and the baby's age at the time, with the explanation, "It is an old superstition that a baby should be carried upstairs so that it may rise in the world before it is taken downstairs." So, yeah. We had a lot of those kind of strange ideas. The other quote I want to read is about the psychologist John Watson. It says, you write,

That same year he published Behaviorism, and four years later The Psychological Care of Infant and Child,"

and this is around--what year is this? This is around 1910?

Janet Golden: I think a little later than that. I can't remember.

Russ Roberts: Okay. Early part of the 20th century. It says,

He advised mothers to never hug and kiss their children or let them sit on their laps. The problem was not, as other experts argued, that kissing conveyed germs but rather it led to the creation of unhappy children. Having little faith in the ability of mothers to rear children or to manage their own lives, Watson believed they needed scientific instruction in the psychological care of children. He viewed his book as the equivalent of Holt's 1894 manual The Care and Feeding of Children, but it had far less influence on actual nursery practices and a personal scandal (an affair with a graduate student he later married) forced him out of academia. His status eclipsed, he moved on to a career in advertising.

I just love that, your ironic ending of that--that he went from academics to advertising. Some would say it's the same field, just different application. But, it is interesting, again to make the point that I made earlier, that there are so many fads, it seems to me, in the psychology of how to raise your children. And you go through a bunch of them, with terms of physical--you should spank them or not spank them--indulge them or not indulge them, give them what they want to eat or force them to eat this other stuff, keep 'em happy, make sure they are--keep their self-esteem high, keep it low so they'll overcome it. All these different fads, and it--I'm calling them fads because I don't think they are much, there's much science to it. And yet, today, we feel like: Now we know. And it just makes you realize that: Well, we don't know so well.

Janet Golden: Yes. There is a kind of back and forth in the world of, 'Are we going to be strict? Are we going to be loving? Can you hold your baby too much? Can you not hold your baby enough?' We really--and it's very hard, of course, to subject that to any data-driven analysis. But it's, it's quite wonderful to see, as a historian to see the back and forth. And my favorite story about that, of course, is Dr. Spock, who was Benjamin Spock, raised in a very strict household that followed the late 19th century expert Luther Emmett Holt--you know, you rise at a certain time, you go to bed at a certain time, you eat at a certain time; you keep your distance from the child; you know, you don't overindulge it--and then, of course, turned around and preached something very, very different. After undergoing a lot of psychoanalysis, [?] to that. And of course there are people that advocate things on all sides: Let your baby cry to sleep. You know: Don't let your baby cry to sleep. Lots of--

Russ Roberts: Bring your baby into the bed, into your bed. Leave it in its own bed. Put it on its stomach. Put it on its back. Music/no music.

Janet Golden: The one thing I found most interesting in that was when I discovered, much to my surprise, that babies don't really need to be burped. Somebody, in 2016 I think it was, finally did a study: Is burping good for babies? I burped my children--I'll come right out and say that.

Russ Roberts: We did, too. We were horrible.

Janet Golden: It's not horrible. But it turns out, in most cultures around the world, they don't burp babies. And when you do, you know, pat them on the back and help them--they don't need help burping. And they tend to throw up a little bit more when you do that. But it really took till--what, 2016?--before we asked the question in the United States and in the West: Do babies need to be burped? And I would bet dollars to donuts, published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, has had no effect. Because we've all been taught by everyone around us to burp babies and people are probably going to continue to do that. No harm will come to the baby. We may get a little more spitup on our shoulders. But, you know, it's interesting to think about the things we do question and the things we don't.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. My mother, grandmother taught her children--who is now 85; I can still see her, the pleasure she got from just walking around the room and burping our kids. Just the comfort she got from patting them, and the art of it--the satisfaction she got when it was successful. It's an interesting human thing.

35:45

Russ Roberts: That's related, of course, to colic. Which reminds me of constipation. Which take up some nontrivial part of the book. Not a large part, but a part of it. Because, it was an obsession, and still is to some extent, both of those issues. I like your line, you say,

What went into infants, came out of infants, making toilet training another shared concern of parents and experts. Baby book pages prompted mothers to make detailed notes, as they practiced what a writer called "hygienic surveillance."

So, when you have your first child, the obsession that you have with its, what goes in and what comes out, and the in-between part, the colic or the burping and all that--it, what it made me realize, which again I knew but it made me realize it in a more visceral way--is how unprepared human beings are to survive in the world. It's obvious. Humans are born way too early, compared to other animals. And that's because, if the gestation period was as long as it should be, which is probably something like 2 years, the baby could not be born. The size of the human crown, the head, is too large for the hips of a delivering mother. And so, babies are born, even at 9 months, prematurely in some sense. And, we're completely helpless. That's obvious, compared to, say, a colt or a kitten. Other animals in a very short period of time can fend for themselves. We certainly can't fend for ourselves for a very long period of time; and we seem remarkably fragile, at the same time.

Janet Golden: Mmmhmm. And so, I guess I do get to talk about what comes in and out of babies. You know, Americans--and I'll say this because I study U.S. history--have always been obsessed with their digestive tracts. We'll put it that way. And, you can turn on nightly television and see a lot of ads for products for adults--we'll just be discreet about that.

Russ Roberts: I appreciate that, Janet, very much. Often, I tell guests before an episode that we have young listeners, and language and topics, certain language and topics, are best kept off the program, unless I warn listeners in advice--which I do once in a while. I did not warn Janet. I didn't think anything was happening. But, who knows? Here we are in an area that could offend some. And you're handling it very well. Janet, I appreciate that. Carry on.

Janet Golden: Well, I went through--as I point out in my book--the U.S. Children's Bureau received up to a quarter million letters a year, mostly from women, sometimes from grandparents, sometimes from fathers, asking for advice about infant and childcare. They were our trusted advisers. And many, many, many of the letters were about infant digestion. And, I love the letters, because it listed all the different products that families would try to help their babies with their digestion. But, it also shows, kind of an obsession with it that I just found fascinating. And it appears--later on, I read the letters sent to Benjamin Spock; I read the material sent to Arnold Gesell, who was an infant psychologist. It's just a matter of great concern. And, I have to say the women physicians at the Children's Bureau handled it very well. They tried to get the babies off the opiate-laced products--which helped the infants to become a bit constipated. They tried to get them off other products that meant to loosen them up. They really just kind of believed that, at least in regards to evacuation, infants pretty much would know what they were doing. I hope that was discreet enough?

Russ Roberts: Yeah, I love it. It's awesome. It is remarkable how many things people used that were either ineffective or counterproductive--perhaps in terms of general health. But, there's a special category which we haven't talked about yet, which is: How did cod liver oil ever become a thing? And why did it die out? [More to come, 40:19]


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