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infant care, parenting advice, childcare books, toilet training, infant feeding, Benjamin Spock


This essay examines print literature targeting American mothers of infants from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, analyzing text excerpts from “baby books” spanning six decades and providing background illuminating those texts and their authors. Books authored by Benjamin Spock, Arnold Gesell, and John B. Watson are reviewed, along with work of less well known but widely read authors Emmett Holt, Herman Bundesen, and others. Changes in recommended feeding and toilet-training practices, sleeping arrangements, and behavioral expectations of babies, as well as the variation in style and tone of the experts’ advice are traced through the period studied. Parent advice publications grew in popularity as changing family structures removed traditional sources of information and support for mothers, and the public came to highly regard scientific information and seek expert guidance in aspects of their lives previously governed by traditional wisdom. Included are publications of the federal Children’s Bureau and discussion of that agency’s role in advising parents through printed literature. Findings from this review assert that despite the advice-givers’ presentation of their recommendations as universal and scientific, their writings more accurately serve as a chronicle of changing patterns of beliefs and attitudes of middle class society rather than an empirical body of knowledge about infant growth and development.

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Article published in Journal of Family History, by SAGE Publications, and can be found at

Copyright © 2020 by SAGE Publications

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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