Psychology and History of Swaddling: Part Two: The Abolishment of Swaddling from the 16th Century until Today

Article excerpt

I am tied down; I want to raise my arms, but I cannot do it, and I wail and weep.

- Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, First Recollections, 1878


In all of Europe swaddling was probably common in Early Modern Times. A woodcut of 1555 (on next page) shows swaddling in the Scandinavian area. The Swedish peasants swaddled their babies, put them into baskets, lashed them and pulled them up in trees.1 The peasants assumed that otherwise serpents would creep into the mouths of their babies, like the accompanying text of the author, catholic Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), states.

Of course, the writing does not deal with real dangers by serpents, but with superstitious conceptions. The evil often came embodied by serpents or terrible creatures out of the mouth of witches or bad children but before the evil must have intruded somehow into the body.2 Gorer writes of comparable conceptions of the Russian peasants of the 19th century: They were afraid that the devil intrudes by the mouth into the body.3 Still in 1850 the herpetologist Arnold Adolph Berthold studied such assumptions by examining dying amphibians and reptiles in bodywarm water without air.4 He demonstrated that the animals cannot survive in the environment of a human stomach. This superstition may have resulted from the elimination of tapeworms and other parasites, which one perhaps regarded as serpents.

All this shows that the swaddling practice was connected with fears and magical fantasies. These fantasies obviously were connected with projections on the babies. They were on the one hand the place where the evil could intrude, thus they could become themselves dangerous. On the other hand they were victims of the evil, of the devil. These two fantasy conceptions made babies ambivalent creatures: The practice of swaddling appears thus again as a magic ritual action in order to ban these two dangers. The baby was swaddled because it was potentially dangerous, and it was pulled up into the trees in order to protect it. This led to fantastic distortions of the child's image. DeMause presented the concept of the "projective care" in 1974.5 In contrast to the genuine care, which is based on empathy, it comes with the projective care in a first step to the projection of parental fantasies onto the child. In a second step for the now distorted phantasm care is carried out. This concept seems to supply a plausible explanation for swaddling and pulling up into the trees. These projections are facilitated, of course, by the deeply magical conception of the world of late medieval and early modern Europe. Although obviously a certain insight into the physical dysfunctionality of swaddling was also in historically earlier epochs is possible, this did not lead over centuries to an elaborated theoretical or pragmatic criticism of swaddling. Nevertheless, there was a kind of subliminal discussion with this topic in the symbolic-religious and artistic area, as for instance a painting of the 17th century shows densely (above).

The Franciscan Sebastien de Senlis used 1640 the topic of painful swaddling of children literarily:

If you look at these little chubby Babes in the arms of their nurses, and who are wrapped in their little swaddling cloths, wouldn't you say upon seeing them that they are Prisoners who are garrotted in this manner for their very great crimes: they are however young Slaves, whom the sins of their fathers cause to be tied in bonds which are no less painful for being invisible, and who need a Liberator.6

The experience of being swaddled, which seems possibly distant to us today, was a substantial component of the psyches of historical persons and formed accordingly the associated historical mentality. Swaddling probably promoted a varying between passivity and activity and the occupation with (visual) fantasies. Possibly by leading to an emotional deprivation, swaddling may have made necessary the search for idealized objects and over-cathected religious phantasies. …