New exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood explores challenges of parenthood

Curator Lyn Stevens with some of the items in the exhibition.
Curator Lyn Stevens with some of the items in the exhibition.
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In 2017 the Scottish Government launched a Baby Box scheme, which sees every new baby born in Scotland receiving a box of essential items, such as clothes, a changing mat, a sling and a thermometer. On the first anniversary of the scheme the Museum of Childhood received its own baby box and the idea to create an exhibition about babies and how to care for them was born.

As I started to look through the museum collections I could see that some things about looking after babies had changed throughout the last 100 years or so and that also many things had stayed the same. Essentially, babies need to be fed, clothed, kept clean and have somewhere to sleep, and that has never changed. The exhibition features over 200 objects and I have a few favourites to share with you.

The Baby Box addresses a lot of basic requirements; the box itself can be a place for baby to sleep in the first weeks of life and included in the box is a toy and book, recognising bonding and interacting with your baby from day one is very important. Although there has been a debate around the necessity of every family receiving a box, regardless of income, the aim of the scheme is for every child to have the same start to life.

The museum holds a large collection of books and amongst them is a selection of parenting manuals, read to help ease the anxiety that comes with the arrival of a new born baby. Many expectant parents look for guidance on how to prepare, and new parents are looking for help with how to get baby to feed and how to get baby to sleep. People are now more likely to search the internet for information, but for the same reasons.

One of the books on display is The Contented Little Baby Book – The secret to calm and confident parenting by Gina Ford. This book has divided opinion and been criticised for encouraging very rigid routines on babies that adds stress to the new experience of parenting, but others swear by the systematic schedule of naps and feeding. Advice on how to be a good parent has always differed, whether it is on the internet, from books, friends, relatives or health professionals.

One of the oldest objects in the exhibition is a beautiful pair of pink embroidered shoes from the 19th century They were donated by a lady from Glasgow, but it is not documented who had worn them as a baby. Although pink, they may have been worn by a girl or boy, as pink has only been associated with girls since the middle of the 20th century. At the time of the shoes being used boys would very likely have had long hair and worn long dresses until the age of three or four at least.

Traditionally, a selection of baby clothes and bedding would have been handmade at home, known as a layette. These items would have been made by the expectant mother and other female family members. Knitting and crafting have made a comeback in recent years, and many new babies still receive knitted creations, from tiny mittens to decorative blankets. I had great fun looking through the collection of patterns in the museum and uncovering some fashions that might look a bit strange to us now. A moss stitch helmet pattern from the late 1940s is a great candidate for dressing baby for photos thought to be embarrassing later in life. This particular pattern was sold at John Smith & Co (Wools) Ltd. Frederick Street, Edinburgh.

Matinee jackets, usually knitted, short flared coats, worn by both girls and boys have remained a popular favourite amongst baby clothes. The colour of wool a knitter chooses usually gives an indication to others whether the baby is a boy or girl. Sometimes it is hard to tell the gender of a baby unless the clothes are colour coded, but parents may also deliberately choose neutral colours. In more recent years the colours for baby and children’s clothes has fallen into very easily recognised colours for boys and girls, and most recently with slogans or mottoes. I noticed that most of our 19th century clothing for babies was usually white, due to the fabrics and dyes available, but also for easy laundering.

Today there is a lot of pressure on women to breast feed, but it is not always possible to do so. Powdered milk was developed over 100 years ago, so is not a new option for parents. On display is a fascinating booklet from the early 1930s called Happy Babies which extols the virtues of Nestle milk and food with testimonies from mothers alongside photos of their babies. Nestle’s Milk Food ingredients include pure sugar, which would not be something to boast about today. One of the testimonies reads, “I have great pleasure in letting you know that my daughter has been successful in winning two first places, Champion Baby of the Show. Marjorie has been fed on Nestle since 5-6 weeks.”

The first disposable nappy was the Paddi Pad invented by Valerie Hunter Gordon in 1947. She was expecting her third child and dreading the thought of more nappies to wash and dry. After several experiments, she designed waterproof pants fastened with poppers and a drawstring at the waist which held a disposable, biodegradable pad made of cellulose wadding covered with cotton wool. The nappies were made commercially from 1949 and millions were being sold by the end of the 1950s. Competition from Pampers – an all-in-one disposable nappy – put an end to Paddi Pads in the 1960s.Today parents are again using reusable cloth nappies for environmental reasons, but with the advantage of much more effective washing machines and warm centrally heated houses to dry them in.

Teething can be very painful for a baby and having something to chew on can help alleviate the pain. In the 19th century coral was thought to have healing properties and was given to wealthier children to chew, one mounted in silver is on display in the exhibition. Today it is more likely that a plastic or rubber toy is used, and Sophie la Girafe has been a very popular option since it was first launched in 1961.

It is not just a better understanding of a baby’s health that today’s parents have, but also that of the pregnant woman. The early 1990s leaflet image advising women to not smoke during pregnancy may come as a surprise to many visitors as most people now understand the health dangers of smoking.

The things that parents worry about most for their new born babies vary little over the decades. They want their children to be healthy and happy. Fashions for styles of clothes come and go, as does advice for how to get babies to sleep and feed well. The biggest differences we see in raising infants over the last 100 years are our knowledge of health and hygiene and a growing choice of foods, clothes, toys and equipment that we can buy. Bringing up a baby is still a huge challenge, but one which comes with many moments of happiness.

As John Locke wrote in 1693: “To neglect beginnings is the fundamental error into which most parents fall.”

Bringing Up Baby at The Museum of Childhood, 
42 High Street, Edinburgh runs until 29 September, entry is free; www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk