On the set of “La Maison des Maternelles” (France 2), our journalist Katrin Acou-Bouaziz traces the evolution of newborn care…
Overall, until modern times, the infant is not considered a “completed being”, an idea already formulated at the time ofAristotle. The very high infant mortality in the first weeks of life reinforced this belief. The first aid were therefore of crucial importance, since they allowed babies to become real human beings.
Rid the child of the traces of his uterine life
After careful inspection of the baby, announcement of its gender and section of the umbilical cord, we got rid of the baby as quickly as possible everything that still connected him to his intra-uterine life (phlegm in the eyes, ears, nose). Then it was bath time. In ancient Rome, the first bath allowed entry into the mortal world. We even sprinkled the baby with salt to strengthen its skin, and rubbed it with mallow, fenugreek, myrtle, scented oils…
After the 14th century, washing with water on bare skin became scandalous for the Church. We therefore contented ourselves with rubbing with “kitchen stocks”, olive oil, butter, lard and lukewarm cloths. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that this first toilet made it possible to remove traces of sperm (in reality the varnish) whose fetus would have been watered to grow well during the sexual relations of the pregnancy !
We did not touch the fontanel. The layer of grime called the “cap” protected this fragile area. In short, at that time, dirt was sought after. In the Limousin, a saying explained “the dirtier the children, the better off they are!”. Same lice had a role: they were “in charge of drawing bad blood”. We didn’t wash the diapers either: we dried them in the sun!
Modeling the baby to become “compliant”
Always with the idea of completing the being in formation, we modeled it like wax, we was massaging and in particular its skull which is very malleable and often deformed at the birth ! Among the Romans, it was even believed that they could improve the shape of children’s noses with their fingertips! In the France of yesteryear, after this kneading by the matron, we pinched the nipples of little girls to form them, we even tried to create dimples (in fashion) by pressing peas on the bottom of their cheeks!
Third and final step: swaddling…
Thanks to the’swaddling, it was thought to “fix” the shape of the baby, prevent it from moving and therefore cause deformations. The head was kept in line with the column with the diaper, the skull was protected under the tissues and in particular the fontanel. We blocked the arms along the body, hands wide open. The legs were swaddled separately, to prevent them from touching. We tightened a little at the level of the joints to create fine ties. In this outfit, the infant had a less soft, less animal aspect, which disturbed mentalities much too much! “Without that he would perhaps walk on all fours like animals,” wrote Francois Mauriceau, famous doctor of the seventeenth century. It was also very practical for transporting the baby (especially in the fields) and avoiding the cold and shocks!
Layette, bath, cologne and talc…
The technique of modeling is dying out as medicine progresses. The swaddling gradually turns into layette of several rooms. the bath he came back in force in the 18th century when knowledge of hygiene spread. It becomes very codified in the 20th century, daily, with a temperature and precise gestures to follow. It is followed by rubbing with cologne and the famous talc. The newborn escapes, but is immediately taken away from its mother to have its face cleaned, its phlegm sucked out, weighed and measured under a strong light.
Treatments to mimic the uterine cocoon
From the 1970s (particularly thanks to Frederik Leboyerauthor of “For a birth without violence”), we realize that this protocol has a violent aspect that does not favor mother-child exchanges and the start of breastfeeding. Treatments are softened, lose their systematic side, we favor the skin to skin, the first bath is postponed for 24 or 48 hours. We even bring old rituals up to date, wrapped baths, massageand swaddling but for other reasons: we want to reassure the baby, prolong the feeling of security of the uterine cocoon.
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