Potty Training: a historical perspective #1: Ancient Greece to seventeenth century swaddling bands

When I was writing Nappy Free Baby in 2014, I did a huge amount of research on the history of nappy use and toilet training.

However, when it came to editing my book for publication, my publisher felt that the historical content weighed too heavy on the book. I agreed and cut much of it, excepting the very latter part of the twenty-first century.

Rather than let all that good research go to waste, I thought I ought to write it up here as blogs posts. So here’s the first instalment:

Although babies have remained largely the same for the last few hundreds of thousands of years, the way we care for them changes, sometimes dramatically, from one generation to the next. One of the earliest writings on baby care, however, chimes with the spirit of this book. The Greek physician Galen wrote in c. 175 AD: “When they cry or scream or are upset, we should understand that it means something is disturbing them, and we must try to discover what they need and give it to them before their minds and bodies become more overly excited… When they want to move their bowels or urinate or are hungry or thirsty, they show their needs by a continuous restlessness as if distressed.”[1]

Some modern parents, who take a more intuitive approach to childcare, believe that gentle methods are harking back to a simpler, more harmonious way of baby-raising. We (I count myself in this) sometimes have a romantic view that pre-industrial revolution, or perhaps in tribal cultures, babies’ needs were always met and respected. In my research for this book, I have been rather disillusioned! Authors report that this was very often not the case. Nathan Miller’s The Child in Primitive Society, (published in 1928, when there were still quite a few primitive tribes around), is full of the horrors of infanticide, deprivation and mutilation in tribal societies.[2] The historian DeMause reports that so-called ‘civilised’ societies before the industrial revolution were absolutely rife with child abuse – evidence suggests that virtually all children were beaten prior to the eighteenth century – usually severely; a thirteenth century law proclaimed: “If one beats a child until it bleeds, then it will remember, but if one beats it to death, the law applies.”[3] So we have to be careful when waxing lyrical about simpler societies: although in some cases the traditions of those societies seem to match babies’ needs for physical closeness, a constant attachment figure and autonomous play, there was sometimes a lack of empathy with children. Without a basis of understanding of children’s needs, it is easy for any society to develop detrimental practices without realising the consequences. This is true in all areas of childrearing, including toilet management and training.

I want to give you an overview of how mothers have historically dealt with their babies’ waste. It’s not an easy subject to research: even when cultures of the past did keep a written record of their lives, matters so ordinary as baby care (especially when it was the concern of women) was not often deemed important enough to write about. Instructional manuals may not provide a true picture. Some of the ‘waste management’ systems I discovered were undoubtedly coercive and damaging, however, I don’t want to be too judgemental about practices from an earlier age. So…


Swaddling bands

In warmer parts of the world, both in the past and today, it is common to find babies kept naked, or strapped to their mothers, covered only with a sling. (And even in some cold climates, for example, the Inuits.) However, the practice of swaddling was fully embraced in England for many centuries. Deborah Jackson notes in her wonderful book, Baby Wisdom, that medieval procedures for swaddling were complicated and precise, and could take up to two hours. At times splints were added to the swaddling bands to keep babies straight. As we know from our own experience, lots of complicated clothing can reduce our motivation to potty, or even change baby. It was the same in the sixteenth century: “Once swaddled, there was a reluctance to undo all one’s careful work. Although all the childcare authorities pleaded with women to change their babies three times a day, the extreme passivity of the child and the trouble it took to get him that way militated against his being frequently unwrapped. Some people even argued that babies were best stewed in their own ‘nourishing juices.’”[4] In 1601 the French Dauphin, Louis XIII, was kept in his swaddling bands until he was 9 months, thereafter he wore frocks with no underwear.[5] Presumably his toilet training also began at that point.

Once babies were out of swaddling bands, however, sources from the seventeenth century show us that doctors and parents alike were extremely concerned about constipation, and ‘regularity’ of bowel movement was much desired. In 1693, John Lock published his theories of maintaining regularity:

“I would therefore advise that this Course should be taken with a Child everyday, presently after he has eaten his Break-fast. Let him be set upon the Stool, as if disburdening were as much in his power, as filling his Belly; and let not him, or his Maid, know anything to the Contrary, but that it is so; and if he be forced to endeavour, by being hindered from his play, or Eating again, till he has been effectually at stool, or at least done his utmost, I doubt not, but in a little while, it will become natural to him.”[6]

Although Lock does not specify the age of the child, the language indicates a baby or small child “let him be set upon the stool”. By his own account, Dr Heroud administered literally thousands of enemas and suppositories to the Dauphin, in an effort to induce regularity of movements.[7]

In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued vehemently against swaddling and in England the practice gradually fell out of favour, especially in the daytime. It is also around this time that records show toilet training in early infancy was gaining sway.[8]

Click here For Part 2 – The Victorians and Freud

[1] Quoted in Beekman, Daniel, The Mechanical Baby: A popular history of the theory and practice of child raising (London : Dennis Dobson, 1979).

[2] Miller, Nathan, The Child in Primitive Society (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1928).

[3] deMause, Loyd, ‘The Evolution of Childhood’ in The History of Childhood ed. by deMause (Norwich: Fletcher and Son ltd, 1976) p42.

[4] Jackson, Deborah Baby Wisdom (London: Hodder and Stoughton 2002) p. 263.

[5] Crump, Lucy, Nursery life 300 years ago: The Story of a Dauphin of France 1601-10(London: Routledge 1929).

[6] Locke, John, “Some thoughts concerning education” (London: Churchill, 1693) p29.

[7] Crump.

[8] deMause , Lloyd, ‘The Evolution of Childhood’ in The History of Childhood ed. by deMause, (Norwich: Fletcher and Son ltd, 1976) p.50

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