This section is from the "The Young Mother. Management of Children in Regard to Health" book, by William A. Alcott. Also available from Amazon: The Young Mother
Danger of savage practices. Rousseau. Cold water at birth. First washing of the child. Rules. Temperature. Bathing vessels. Unreasonable fears. Whims. Views of Dr. Dewees. Hardening. Rules for the cold bath. Securing a glow. Coming out of the bath. Local baths. Shower bath. Vapor bath. Sponging. Neglect of bathing. The Romans. Treatment of children compared with that of domestic animals.
Some of the hardy nations of antiquity, as well as a few savage tribes of modern times, have been accustomed to plunge their new-born infants into cold water. This is done for the two-fold purpose of washing and hardening them.
To all who reason but for a moment on this subject, the danger of such a practice must be obvious. So sudden a change from a temperature of nearly 100° of Fahrenheit to one quite low, perhaps scarcely 40°, must and does have a powerful effect on the nervous system even of an adult; but how much more on that of a tender infant? We may form some idea of this, by the suddenness and violence of its cries, by the sudden contractions and relaxations of its limbs and body, and by its palpitating heart and difficult breathing.
Every one's experience may also remind him, that what produces at best a momentary pain to himself, cannot otherwise than be painful to the infant. In making a comparison between adults and infants, however, in this respect, we should remember that the lungs of the infant do not get into full and vigorous action until some time after birth; and that, on this account, the hold they have on life is so feeble, that any powerful shock, and especially that given by the cold bath, is ten times more dangerous to them than to adults, or even to infants themselves, after a few months have elapsed.
It is surprising to me that so sensible a writer as Rousseau generally is on education, should have encouraged this dangerous practice; and still more so that many fathers even now, blinded by theory, should persist in it, notwithstanding the pleadings of the mother or the nurse, and the plainest dictates of common sense and common prudence.[Footnote: Nothing is intended to be said here, which shall encourage unthinking nurses or mothers in setting themselves against measures which have been prescribed by higher authority,—I mean the physician. There are cases of this kind, where it requires all the resolution which a father, uninterrupted, can summon to his aid, to administer a dose or perform a task, on which he knows the existence of his child may be depending: but when the thoughtless entreaties of the mother or nurse are interposed, it makes his condition most distressing. Mothers, in such cases, ought to encourage rather than remonstrate. They who do not, are guilty of cruelty, and—perhaps—of infanticide.]
A child plunged into cold water at birth, by those whose theories carry them so far as to do it even in the coldest weather, has sometimes been twenty-four hours in recovering, notwithstanding the most active and judicious efforts to restore it. In other instances the results have been still more distressing. Dr. Dewees is persuaded that he has "known death itself to follow the use of cold water," in this way—I believe he means immediate death—and adds, with great confidence, that he has "repeatedly seen it require the lapse of several hours before reaction could establish itself; during which time the pale and sunken cheeks and livid lips declared the almost exhausted state" of the infant's excitability.[Footnote: "Dewees on children" p. 72.]
We need not hesitate to put very great confidence in the opinion here expressed; for besides being a close and just observer of human nature, Dr. D. has had the direction and management, in a greater or less degree, of several thousands of new-born infants.
Nothing, indeed, in the whole range of physical education, seems better proved, than that while some few infants, whose constitutions are naturally very strong, are invigorated by the practice in question, others, in the proportion of hundreds for one, who are less robust, are injured for life; some of them seriously.
Nor will spirits added to the water make any material difference. I am aware that there is a very general notion abroad, that the injurious effects of cold water, in its application both internally and externally, are greatly diminished by the addition of a little spirit; but it is not so. Does the addition of such a small quantity of spirit as is generally used in these cases, materially alter the temperature? Is it not the application of a cold liquid to a heated surface, still? Can we make anything else of it, either more or less?
I do not undertake to say, that the cold bath may not be so managed in the progress of infancy, as to make it beneficial, especially to strong constitutions. It is its indiscriminate application to all new-born children, without regard to strength of constitution, or any other circumstances, that I most strenuously oppose. Of its occasional use, under the eye of a physician, and by parents who will discriminate, I shall say more presently.
Our first duty on receiving a new inhabitant of the world is, to see that it is gently but thoroughly washed, in moderately warm soft water, with fine soap. Special attention should be paid to the folds of the joints, the neck, the arm pits, &c. For rubbing the body, in order to disengage anything which might obstruct the pores, or irritate or fret the skin, nothing can be preferable to a piece of soft sponge or flannel. Though the operation should be thorough, and also as rapid as the nature of circumstances will permit, all harshness should be avoided. When finished, the child should be wiped perfectly dry with soft flannel.