Blandine Bril, Silvia Parrat-Dayan

Maternity From the First Steps to the First Cries Publication date : March 13, 2008

The way newborns are cared for — touched, fed, put to sleep, rocked, carried and bathed — varies immensely from one culture to another. Infants may be swaddled or allowed to go nearly naked. They may be carried on the hip, or the back, of a woman or child, though rarely of a man, and attached with a piece of cloth in any of a multitude of colours and designs. They may be put to sleep in the parents' bed, or in a basket rocked by passers-by. They may be bathed in a gourd, or in a metal or plastic basin. Some newborns are massaged for the first forty days of their lives, others for six months or even a year. But all these different customs share the same goals: to ensure that the utmost is done so the child develops as well as possible and survives the first year, and to allow the mother to carry on with her daily chores.

This book, at the crossroads of anthropology and history, gives a fascinating picture of the way infants have been cared for in a large number of cultures throughout history. What does the baby do during the day? How does she eat? What does she wear and how is she carried? How is he bathed? These questions are asked through time and space, from the medieval countryside to today's megalopolises; from Uzbekistan to Mali, from Mexico to Korea.

The authors conclude that none of the practices examined here can be said to be good or bad on a lasting basis. What matters is whether they will enable the child to adapt to the world around her and whether they will help the mother and father adapt to their parental role.

This book constitutes a brilliant argument in favour of adaptability, adjustment and freedom of choice. It should be required reading for anxious parents who believe there is a single ideal way of bringing up children, as well as for those who are afraid of doing something wrong. It is also a lesson in humility for the childcare experts who are so lavish in offering ideal solutions. This is the first book to provide such a complete picture of infant care throughout history and in so many cultures.

Blandine Bril, an anthropologist, is a director of studies at the école des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).

Sylvia Parrat-Dayan, a historian, is a researcher at the University of Geneva's Jean Piaget Archives.