Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Psychology and History of Swaddling: Part One: Antiquity until 15th Century

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Psychology and History of Swaddling: Part One: Antiquity until 15th Century

Article excerpt

Jesus, my much-dear! Free me from my bandages!

- Mechthild of Magdeburg


Swaddling babies tightly was practiced for thousands of years in very many cultures and still is quite common today.1 Tight swaddling was up to the 18th Century a usual baby care practice. A traditionally swaddled baby cannot move its body, all its motorical expressions are extremely limited, and only the face and eye muscles remain free.

Besides the tight swaddling with ribbons there are probably two main other forms that carry virtually the same result as the swaddling: namely, the Cradleboard and the cradle. The Cradleboard of American Indians is usually made from a solid base and straps for tying down the child. Wrappers are often added to the child. The baby was often laid into the cradle already swaddled, and then again tied, as the surgeon Felix Würtz described in the 16th Century.2 The historical cradle had devices for tying down the baby.3 These straps were called "cunarum vincula", which means "constraint of the cradle", a rather aggressive-sounding term.4 Cradles have been used since ancient times.5 The cradle obviously often was fantasized as a place where harm threatened. On many cradles pentagrams or religious symbols were installed, as they occurred elsewhere in order to defend from demons at beds, doors, windows, buildings etc.6 Often cradles were equipped with drainage systems, so that urine could flow out, such as in the Japanese cradle, the Ejiko.7 This was meant to reduce the maintenance requirements.

Swaddling was and still is remarkably common on all continents except Australia and Africa south of the Sahara. Several authors suggest that the practice was invented in the Paleolithic.8 Besides, swaddling in the Cradleboards is practiced often together with the molding of the head of the baby.9 Sometimes these head deformities are caused unintentionally, simply because the child was lying long times in the cradle and thereby suffered a flattening of the back head.10 Unlike with swaddling one can assume that various practices of head deformation led most directly to the child's pain. In France of the 19th Century midwives pressed the head of the child into the desired shape, which led to the babies' "crying with pain".11 For the Maya, a deformation procedure was common, with pain and pressure expended so great that many of the children suffered and died of injuries directly.12 Among the historical justifications for swaddling the shaping of the child's body is crucial. Already the ancient physician Soranus of Ephesus (approx. 100 AD) assumed that the child's body was soft and malleable. Therefore it should be brought into an immovable position of extension, and thus be supported and formed. The fear that without the swaddling the soft limbs of the baby would be deformed, was distributed widely for centuries, another reason why children were often tied to a fixed board. Russian mothers of the 19th century claimed without being swaddled the child would get hurt, scratch out his eyes, destroy the nose or touch his genitals. Or they were afraid that the baby was enormously strong, and therefore detrimental to themselves or others, if it was not wrapped.13 In the 17th Century the French physician Mauriceau wrote that the swaddling prevents the baby from moving on all fours like an animal.14 Turkish mothers of the 20th Century tell as justifications for swaddling their babies that it is easier to handle them, they do not violate themselves, it lets them not receive hot stuff and prevents them from falling into the fireplace.15 Also the baby would become stronger by wrapping; it cannot sleep otherwise. These mothers compare the shape of their babies with water: "If you do not swaddle them, the children will never become strong: they remain weak; they are not well. Babies are like water. They should be swaddled until they become thicker."16

All these reasons seem as if they were based on projections and fantasies of fear, as was suggested by deMause in 1974. …

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