Parenting Throughout History – Part II

History is fascinating.  

Sometimes the things you think have just “always been this way” have a completely unexpected back story to them.  

I love reading about history, and the way it has influenced modern day society. This post is my opportunity to share with you some interesting facts I’ve read recently about the history of parenting. 

My first Parenting Throughout History post took you on a tour through five historical eras and their parenting practices of the day. I wanted this post to be a little bit different. Instead of focusing on specific time periods, I want to take you through the fascinating history of some modern parenting trends.  

I learned a lot of new information writing this post, and I hope you do too!  

Baby colors 

We’re all familiar with the baby gender color identifiers – blue for boys and pink for girls. Chances are, if you have a girl, she wears a lot of pink. She probably also has pink accessories, pink toys, and maybe even pink room decorations.  

But did you know that until very recently, pink was considered the boy color? Yep.  

Gender colour identifiers as we know them have not been around for very long at all. Less than a century, actually (Source: Smithsonian). 

Before that, children younger than 6 would usually be dressed in gender neutral white – easy to wash and bleach when it got messy. Even the type of clothing was gender neutral. Everyone wore baby gowns. Boys, too.  

When blue and pink were first introduced – along with other pastel colors – towards the end of the 19th century, most fashion authorities suggested pink for boys because it was a strong color, and blue for girls because it was more calm and dainty.  

It wasn’t until post World War II that blue for boys and pink for girls became the norm.  

Early toilet training 

Children in the United States these days are usually not toilet trained until they are at least two years old. This is another recent development in parenting, and it coincided with the introduction of disposable diapers, which began gaining popularity in the 1960s (Source: Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood).  

Prior to this, children were put in cloth diapers, or wore nothing at all under their baby gown.  

Consequently, toilet training from a young age was historically more significant than it is now.  

The most simple reason being: Faster toilet training meant less washing. No one wants to wash piles of smelly rags filled with human waste. The quicker the baby learned when and where it needed to release bladder and bowels, the less icky laundry mom had to do. 

And I can’t imagine that the baby’s bassinet or clothing smelled very good at this point either. Ew. 

Consequently, another reason earlier toilet training was important was to prevent infection from dirty diaper cloths (Source: Pioneer Thinking).  

Diapers were often worn for long periods of time (days, even) without being changed, and when they were changed they were typically aired out to dry rather than properly washed. Thus the dirty diaper would go back on the baby in a day or two.  

If that sounds gross to you, it’s sounding pretty gross to me as well.  

You can imagine the bacteria that grew and the infections that spread in those conditions. The sooner babies got out of diapers, the healthier they probably were.  

Speaking of diapers… 

Diaper vs. Nappy 

With the advent and popular usage of the internet to connect people across the continents, chances are you’re aware that North American English speakers call them diapers, while the rest of the English speaking world refers to them as nappies (a diminutive of napkin).  

My South African mother-in-law tells the story of the first time she came to the States with her two small boys in tow, and ran out of diapers on the airplane. As one of the children had soiled himself, she asked the American stewardess if they had any spare nappies.  

Thinking she meant a napkin as in serviette, the stewardess brought a napkin. My mother-in-law was trying to explain that her child had messed himself, which only further convinced the stewardess that she needed a napkin. Finally, with exasperation, my mother-in-law exclaimed “I need the thing that goes on the baby’s bottom!” Understanding dawned, and the lady promptly brought her a fresh diaper.  

So how did this difference occur anyway?  

Well as it turns out, diaper was originally a pattern of soft cotton cloth featuring small geometric shapes which became popular in North America. It began to be used for the purposes we are familiar with today because of its soft and absorbent nature, and therefore the word diaper for infant underpants was born (Source: Pamper Essentials).  

The word napkin, on the other hand, has always referred to a square of cloth (Source: Oxford Dictionaries). This was originally a table cloth, then a cloth used to wipe hands and face with at mealtime. You can see how the leap was made to nappies, as for centuries a nappy was simply a square cloth pinned around the baby’s loins.  

Baby bottles  

These days we’re all used to the clear plastic (or glass) bottle with the soft nipple on top. That is what constitutes a modern day baby bottle. But artificial feeding devices for infants throughout history didn’t necessary look like that.  

There were several different types of artificial feeding devices used (Source: Journal of Perinatal Education). 

The earliest recovered baby bottles were made of clay into which animal’s milk had been poured. The clay was generally shaped into something resembling a modern baby bottle, with a nipple-like piece at the top.  

During the middle ages, babies who could not be breastfed for various reasons were fed with a perforated cow’s horn (Source: Archives of Pediatrics). The small part of the horn was cut off, and a split piece of parchment or leather placed over the hole and stitched up the middle so that the milk could be sucked out from between the stitches.  

You can imagine how hygienic that was after one or two feedings.  

By the 1700s, bottles were created from silver or pewter and were covered at the narrow top with a cloth or sponge for the infant to suck the milk through.  

Finally during the mid 1800s, glass bottles began to gain popularity, using cork for the nipple. This was the precursor to the modern infant bottle. Small tweaks were made along the way, such as the material the nipple was made out of, but the design has stayed much the same.  

The advent of the glass feeding bottle significantly decreased the infant mortality rate among artificially fed babies, as poor cleaning and soured milk previously led to infection and sickness. Glass was an easier material to clean, and people could easily see when it needed washing.  

History is fascinating. Read more about the history of some modern parenting trends in this follow-up to my first Parenting Around the World post. | Mom but not a Mom


Technology for raising children has come a long way through the years. Isn’t it encouraging to look back and see how far we’ve come?  

What are your thoughts on parenting throughout history? Where do you think parenting will take us in the future? 


P.S: If you enjoyed this post, take a look at it’s predecessor – Parenting Throughout History: A peek into the past!

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