Bawling babies and their baths in early modern England

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By | Early Medicine

Galenic and Hippocratic medical traditions did not see all bodies as the same. Indeed, recent work by Hannah Newton has shown that early modern physicians treated and perceived children as ‘physiologically distinct’ from adults. Children, including infants, were moist, warm and their bodies flexible. Despite these concepts, we know very little about the earliest part of life in early modern England. The frontispiece from Jane Sharp’s 1671 ‘The midwives book’ shows a newborn baby freshly swaddled in a cradle next to the fire, while its mother is cared for by women attending her birth, called gossips. In examining vernacular medical texts such as Sharp’s and the correspondence of middling and upper sort 17th century families, I have found that crying and bathing were prominent in regimes of care that increased newborn health.

Image of childbirth in early printed book.

Scene from frontispiece to EPB/47966/A: Jane Sharp, The compleat midwife’s companion: or, the art of midwifry improv’d (London: J. Marsall [sic], 1724). Wellcome Images L0028111.

Infants were in a vulnerable and unstable state in the days and weeks after birth. This was a cautious and transitional time during which midwives and nurses performed care under the direction of the new mother, her family and her gossips. Babies were bred in the womb in moisture and phlegm. It was therefore paramount to their survival following birth that they excreted this surplus fluid, a process that began immediately with the baby’s first tears.

Sharp described how healthy newborns would cry ‘clear and loud’. It made the ‘strength of the Breast’ known, but also, as Daniel Sennert described in his ‘Practical physick’ (1664), stirred ‘up natural heat’, and emptied the brain, lungs and passages of phlegm. The brain of an infant was ‘very moist, and hath many excrements which Nature cannot send out its proper passages’, as the famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper described it (‘Culpeper’s directory for midwives’, 1662).

Healthy babies cried with gusto after birth and were described as large and ‘lusty’ in family correspondence. John Egerton, second earl of Bridgewater, wrote to Charles Cavendish, Viscount Mansfield on 3 June 1656 describing how his wife ‘was delivered, but not without the assistance of Dr Hinton of a very large boy’. Four days later, Egerton’s sister gave birth to the ‘Lustiest boy that euer I sawe’. This was in contrast to infants whose survival seemed unlikely. A few weeks earlier that year (20 May 1656) Charles Cheyne wrote to Cavendish describing a baby boy ‘little & weake born’.

Although bawling after birth was a positive sign of infant viability, if this crying was excessive and continued after the first days of life it became cause for concern. Anne, countess of Arundel wrote to her daughter Mary Talbot on 21 August 1689 relaying that although Anne’s grandson had not been able to feed, reassuringly he was ‘a most ernest crier’. This optimism dissipated when a month later his crying had intensified rather than abated. ‘In trooth’, she confessed, ‘the yonger boy doth greveth me and feareth me much with his extremety of crying Which is so vement.’ Indeed, the English physician Robert Barret in his ‘Companion for midwives’ (1699) instructed that ‘above all’ other concerns during the newborn period, nurses, midwives and parents should ‘be very careful not to suffer the Child to cry too much.’ This was because the motion involved in bawling was thought too taxing for delicate infant bones that were sodden with moisture. Such movement could cause lasting damage. This was why infants were swaddled in layers of fabric after birth: to prevent them moving excessively and distorting their bones.

Woodcut of mother bathing baby

EPB/503/B: Artzneybuch köstlich für mancherley Kranckheit des gantzen Leibs (Erfurt: M. Sachse, 1546), folio CCXXXVIIIr. Wellcome Images L0003178.

Hygiene, and specifically bathing, served to encourage babies to shed moisture. There were two separate acts: shifting and bathing. In shifting, the baby was changed: its swaddling bands were taken off, and faeces and urine removed with a cloth. In ‘The byrth of mankynde’ (1545) Thomas Raynalde described how the nurse must tenderly:
geue all dilygence and hede that she bynd euery part ryght and in his due place and order, and that with all tendernesse & gentell entreatyng, and not crokedly and confusedly, the which also must be done often-tymes in the day

Shifting happened four to five times a day, but up to three of these occasions were accompanied by a bath. Raynalde, for example, recommended bathing babies ‘two or thre[e] times in the daye’ in a warm bath, hotter in winter, until the ‘body begyn to ware red for hete.’

As the baby’s body became less moist, the frequency of baths decreased. Sharp proposed that in the weeks after birth, carers should ‘wash the body of it twice a week’, but once a baby was weaned it should be bathed rarely. Bathing served an important medical function for newborns. As the water warmed and the nurse’s hands rubbed the baby’s body and stomach, these frictions helped to bring about ‘Concoction, and the distribution of nourishment, and serve instead of exercise and motion’, as John Pechey explained in his ‘General treatise of the diseases of infants and children’ (1697).

Shifting and bathing were important acts of care administered to newborns in early modern England to encourage them gradually to shed moisture. These acts after birth additionally helped to ready the baby’s body for swaddling. The heat and friction of shifting and bathing increased the malleability of the body. But such practices of care did not just promote bodily health: through the touch and comfort of its nurse, the child was also made content. Indeed, the passions of the soul, if roused, could lead to excessive, dangerous crying. My research shows that newborn babies demanded specific care that strengthened them in the face of their excessive moisture and vulnerability to the emotions.


Dr Leah Astbury is a Research Associate on the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Generation to Reproduction’ project at the Department of History & Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. She recently completed her PhD, ‘Breeding women and lusty infants in 17th century England’.

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