A Brief History of Parenting


Image courtesy of Helen England Photography


In order to understand parenting and what babies and children need from their parents, we need to look back at the history of humanity, society and parenting and understand why it has developed the way it has.

I will begin with human evolution and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest; the concept that for humanity to survive and produce more offspring, we have had to adapt to our environment, and not only pass on our best genes (through nature) but also parent (and nurture) our young, through the generations. ‘Parenting is important not only to humans, but it is central to the survival of many species of animals, including all mammals and many birds – Rosenblatt. Evolutionary biologists have long recognised this fact, arguing that, in order for individuals to get their genes into the next generation, they must make investments in mating and, following conception, parenting’ – Hamilton; Trivers.

It is said that ‘the development and growth of the brain and the voice box happened because of the way early humans evolved in interaction with their environment. They were less well adapted to their environment than many species and compensated for this by working together in large groups and developing tools. The growth of the physical size of the human brain, which is much larger than any other animals when compared to our body weight, was both a result of the growth of human intelligence (driven by the need to co-operate and make tools) and a cause of its further growth. With a larger amount of brain available for use, early humans had more potential to develop their intelligence further.’ – Naomi Byron. Scientists have recognised that babies are born vulnerable and highly dependent on their parents because they need to grow in this highly social environment, in order to learn the required skills to survive and develop. They need social experiences and interactions, to watch and learn from adults’ actions and reactions, in order to learn empathy and other social and emotional skills. ‘A close relationship between the child and the caregiver is the best way to nourish the child’s growing brain. When a caregiver plays with and sings, speaks, reads or tells a story to the child and nurtures her or him with healthy food, love and affection, the child’s brain grows. Being healthy, interacting with caregivers and living in a safe and clean environment can make a big difference in a child’s growth, development and future potential.’ – Facts for Life.

With this need for humans to evolve in a highly social environment came the hunter-gatherer society. Hunter-gatherers lived in groups (as some societies around the world still do) and collectively hunted and gathered food. They made tools which they used not only for this, but also to build shelters. All members of the society would be involved in this collective work, including children. They had a very social and communal way of living, with extended families and other non-blood related families. All of the adults would contribute to the upbringing of the children and share the parenting duties. For many tribes around the world this is still the case. ‘For the vast majority of time that humans have populated the planet, they have been hunter-gatherers (Lee & Daly). For this reason, most evolutionary psychologists believe the mind is adapted to a hunter-gatherer way of life (Barkow, et al)’ – HunterGathererFamiliesandParenting. When humans deviate too far from their natural environment it causes stress (which is a topic that I will speak about separately). On accepting that there is a natural need for humans to live, work and share collectively (including the work of child rearing), we need to look at how and why society has deviated so far away from this.

As humans began to practise agriculture, the domestication of animals and started to have some degree of control over their environment, it led to a surplus of food and other goods. For the first time humans were producing more than they needed. This surplus also meant that time was freed up from labour and that people were able to spend this time learning, developing and building new tools and equipment; which in turn made their labour easier and less time consuming. With this increase in productivity of labour and surplus of goods, the way societies worked began to change. As society changed, the needs within families also began to adapt. With the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution, people were forced to move to the cities in order to find work and provide for their families. ‘The Industrial Revolution completely transformed the role of the family. In traditional, agricultural society, families worked together as a unit of production, tending to fields, knitting sweaters, or tending to the fire. Women could parent and also play a role in producing food or goods needed for the household. Work and play time were flexible and interwoven. Industrialisation changed all that. The same specialisation of labour that occurred in factories occurred in the lives of working-class families, and this broke up the family economy. Work and home life became sharply separated.’ – Modern World History. Men and even children were working long hours in factories and mines in order to earn money and provide for their families; while women had to stay at home for childrearing and housework. Working families no longer owned their land or homes, or were able to grow their own food. It was all owned by the upper classes that they were working for in order to earn money to buy food and other goods (which would then be bought from the very people that they were working for). This added a lot of stress to families and meant that both living and working conditions were very poor; which also contributed to a lot of childhood diseases and deaths.

As well as the size of families changing, people also became closed off and private in their own homes. With poverty increasing, crime also began to increase; which led to people being even more closed off. The village and communal lifestyle no longer existed and mothers were becoming more and more isolated with the burden of raising their young all by themselves.

In the 1800s, the rubber nipple, bottle and formula milk (as an emergency substitute to breast milk) were invented. Prior to the invention of formula, wet nursing (where another woman breastfeeds a child that is not her own; from as early as 2000BC) was very common for those children who were unable to get milk from their mothers (such as orphans). If a wet nurse could not be found for a child they would often be ‘dry nursed’ (given milk from an animal); which led to malnutrition and starvation. In 1865, chemist Justus von Liebig developed, patented, and marketed an infant food, first in a liquid form and then in a powdered form for better preservation. Liebig’s formula—consisting of cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate—was considered the perfect infant food (Radbill) – Emily E. Stevens et al., The Journal of Perinatal Education.. The success of this commercial formula gave rise to competitors; although for a long time it was still only considered as an emergency substitute.

In the 1900s science and medicine really began to advance, and where mothers once looked to their own mothers and other close females for knowledge and experience, there was now a huge shift in knowledge, culture and the domain of science and medicine. Thus it was adapted to one mother parenting; with rigid schedules and routines developed, such as mothers being told how long to hold their babies for and when to feed them (every four hours for 5 minutes!). As a result of this ignorant advice babies were failing to thrive.

Although one cannot deny that many advances and a shift in knowledge have been highly advantageous for the welfare and safety of babies and children, there is also a lot which is taken out of context or used to make money. Examples of this are the scaremongering and misinformation of co-sleeping/SIDS and the commercialisation of formula milk (I will again elaborate on both topics separately).

With babies failing to thrive, the understanding and knowledge shifted again from these strict routines, and in the 1960s-1970s Attachment Theory developed. Attachment theory improved the quality of life for babies, as people began understanding babies’ needs and putting them first. The essence of Attachment Parenting is about forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children. Attachment Parenting challenges us as parents to treat our children with kindness, respect and dignity, and to model in our interactions with them the way we’d like them to interact with others – Attachment Parenting International.

However, even though babies’ needs were now being met, mothers were still expected to do this all on their own; putting huge amounts of pressure on them. For this reason, depression, anxiety, divorce and even suicide have become increasingly common amongst mothers in Western societies. Women are not given enough knowledge, preparation and support for the birth, and especially after the birth. Around one in five women will experience a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth (mainly perinatal depression, perinatal anxiety, perinatal OCD, postpartum psychosis or postpartum PTSD). Lack of support from a partner or other family members can put you at risk of developing a mental health problem in the perinatal period. Having a baby is a major life event and can be stressful, exhausting and overwhelming. Lacking a support network, and people to help you, can increase your risk of developing a mental health problem – Mind. Even though family and friends want to help, they no longer know how to. Generations have changed and people don’t want to intrude. How many times have you heard the line ‘we haven’t been to see you and the baby as we wanted to give you space’? The norms of cooking for new-born mothers, cleaning their house, looking after the baby so that they can sleep, etc. have long disappeared in our culture.

With mothers becoming more overwhelmed and stressed, and the lack of support in our society, something has had to give. There has been yet another shift; in response to feeling ashamed or judged for not being able to meet all of these needs (that we have become more mindful of). Thus came about ‘sleep training’ and the ‘cry it out’ method. It is becoming increasingly popular for parents to be told that parenting is hard work and they shouldn’t feel guilty for sometimes putting their own needs over their child’s. The topic of parenting has also become a very sensitive one, with parents becoming easily offended at their parenting being questioned. Sadly, instead of society questioning why this is happening and providing better information and support for parents, parents are instead being told to let their babies cry etc.

I have to be very clear (because I am certain that many mothers reading this will take offence and find it very controversial), that my criticisms are at the system and NOT AT PARENTS who make these decisions. Parents all over the world, especially in Western societies are being let down by the system. This isn’t about shaming and judging parents for choosing to formula feed their babies, or choosing to put their babies in a cot, or out of desperation and what may feel like no other option choosing to let their babies cry it out and ‘sleep train’ them. Women are encouraged to ‘train’ their babies to ‘learn’ and act in ways which are not biologically and developmentally appropriate/possible for babies’ young and immature brains.  They are encouraged to get their babies ‘used to’ being ‘independent’; to formula feed and do whatever is more convenient, rather than being given the correct information and support to breastfeed; to get both their babies and themselves ‘used to’ separation from such a young age, so that the mother can go back to work; and to as quickly as possible go back to their old bodies and lives (including having nights out and drinking alcohol). If women all decided to take their time and put all their focus and energy into their children, or to not go back to work, then the cogs of the system would not keep turning and capitalism would not thrive as much as it does.

Moreover, there are huge profits being made from the sale of formula milk, cots, etc. (and all the paraphernalia that comes with them). The global formula industry alone is worth around $50 billion (£31 billion). Money spent on formula and related products brings vast profit in to supermarkets and other retailers. On the other hand there’s very little money to be made out of breastfeeding. To some, a successfully breastfeeding mum represents lost income – The TelegraphIf a mother decides to exclusively breastfeed her baby she would build a stronger attachment, placing the baby in a separate room and sleep training would be more difficult, she wouldn’t be able to go out and start drinking again, the formula industry wouldn’t make as much profit, and it would make her less likely to return to work once her maternity leave comes to an end. Until fairly recently, if a mother was experiencing any difficulties with breastfeeding then they would get the necessary support and advice from experienced women in the family/village, and worst case scenario a wet nurse would be found. However, nowadays women are constantly bombarded with the media and society’s fear-mongering and attitude of ‘fed is best’ and there is an increased amount of defensiveness and sensitivity around the subject of breastfeeding. Midwives, health visitors and other professionals are even being told not to interfere and to be very careful when approaching the subject with new mothers; as a result of this, and of the cuts to the services, women are not getting enough encouragement and support.

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a society where parents could openly talk about these issues without feeling judged or shamed, and where there was enough support for parents?