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
This is the most appropriate exercise for the first two months of existence; and indeed, one of the best for some time afterward.
Although a healthy, thriving child ought to sleep, for some time after birth, from two thirds to three fourths of his time, yet it should never be forgotten that the demand for proper exercise during the rest of the time, is not the less imperious on this account; but probably the more so.
I have already mentioned the importance of bathing, which is one form of exercise, and of gentle motion in the arms, immediately afterward. The same gentle motion should be often repeated during the day; care being taken to hold the child in such a position as will be easy to him, and favorable to the free exercise of all his limbs and muscles.
There are many mothers and nurses, who not only rejoice that the infant inclines to sleep a great deal, since it gives them more liberty, but who take pains to prolong these hours beyond what nature requires, by artificial means. I refer not only to the use of the cradle, but to means still more artificial—the use of cordials and opiates, to which I have already adverted. But whatever the means used may be, they defeat the purposes of nature, and are in the highest degree reprehensible. Nothing but the most chilling poverty should prevent the mother from having the child—for a few weeks of its first existence at least—in her own arms, nearly all the time which is not absolutely demanded for repose. She should even invite it to wakefulness, rather than encourage sleep.
Attention to exercise ought to be commenced before the child is more than ten days old. For this purpose he should be placed on his back, on a pillow, in order that the body may rest at as many points as possible. In this position he has the opportunity to move his limbs with the most perfect freedom, and to exercise his numerous muscles. There is nothing more important to the infant—not even sleep itself—than the action of all his muscles; and nothing contributes more to his rapid growth.
At first, the body should be kept, while on the arm, in nearly a horizontal position, with the head perhaps a very little elevated; but after a few weeks, it will be proper to change the position for a small part of the time; placing the body so that it may form an angle of a few degrees with the horizon. When this is done, however, it should always be by placing the hand against the shoulders and head, in such a manner as to support well the back; for it is extremely injurious to suffer the feeble spine to sustain, at this early period, any considerable weight.
Still more erroneous is the practice of some careless nurses, of carrying the child quite upright a part of the time, almost without any support at all. There can be no doubt that the spinal column of many a child is injured for life in this way. There can be no apology for such things.
But it is not sufficient to denounce, merely, the custom of holding the infant's body in an erect position. Every inquiring mother—and it is for such, and no other, that I write—will naturally and properly ask the reason why.
The child is not born with all its bones solid. Some are mere cartilage for a considerable time. This is the case with the bones of the back. Now every person must see that the weight of the child's head and shoulders, resting for a considerable time on the slender cartilaginous spinal column, may easily bend it. And a curvature, thus given, may, and often does, deform children for life.
Dr. Dewees mentions a nurse who, from a foolish fondness for displaying them, made the children consigned to her charge sit perfectly upright before they were a month old. It is truly ludicrous, he says, to see the little creatures sitting as straight as if they were stiffened by a back board. It is truly horrible, I should say, rather than ludicrous. Crooked spines must be the inevitable consequence, if nothing worse.
The practice of bracing children, as it is called, by straps, back boards, corsets, &c., where it has produced any effect at all, has always had a tendency to crook the spine. This may be seen first, by observing one shoulder to be lower than the other, and next by a projection of the part of the shoulder blades next to the spine. Whenever these changes begin to appear, it is time to send for a physician, though it may often be too late to effect a cure. But on the general subject of bracing and corseting, I have treated at sufficient length elsewhere.
There is another error committed in carrying children in the arms. The head of the infant is often permitted either to hang constantly on one side, or to roll about loosely; as if it hardly belonged to the body. In the former case there is danger of producing a habit of holding the head upon one side, which it will be very difficult to overcome; in the latter, the spinal marrow itself may be injured—which would produce alarming and perhaps fatal consequences.
But all these evils, as has already been said, may be prevented, if the hand is placed so as to support the head and shoulders. Let not the mother, however, who reads this work, trust the matter wholly to a nurse; she must see to it herself; else she incurs a most fearful responsibility. The suggestions I have made are the more important in the case of children either very fleshy or very feeble, and of those disposed to rickets or scrofula; but they are important to all.
I have said that the motion of the child, on the arm, should be gentle. Many are in the habit of tossing infants about. There can be no objection to a slight and slow movement up and down, for a minute or so at a time; indeed, it is rather to be recommended, as likely to give strength and vigor no less than pleasure to the child. But when such movements are carried to excess, so as to frighten the child, they are highly reprehensible. The shock thus produced to the nervous system has sometimes been so great as to produce sudden death. Nor is it safe to run, jump, or descend stairs hastily or violently, with a child in our arms; and for similar reasons.
Infants should not be carried always on the same arm, for there is danger of contracting a habit of leaning to one side, and thus of becoming crooked. On this account, the arm on which they rest should be often changed. Nor should they be grasped too firmly. A skilful mother will hold a child quite loosely, with the most perfect safety; while an inexperienced one will grasp him so hard as to expose the soft bones to be bent out of their place, and yet be quite as liable to let him fall as she who handles him with more ease and freedom.