The Time Traveller’s Guide for Parents #2: Do NOT Swaddle Your Infant

England, ca 1740 – 1800

The days of swaddling are behind us. We are pleased to report that what one of our acquaintance termed “the barbarous custom” has been, according to a medical expert writing in The Lady’s Magazine (1785), “almost universally laid aside”. And yet, perhaps there are lingering doubts in your mind, or you are still tempted by the importuning of less enlightened older relations to swaddle your poor babe. We beg you to pay heed to the warnings of Mr. Rousseau, who observes on the effects of swaddling that “the inaction, the constraint to which the child’s limbs are subjected can only check the circulation of the blood and humors; it can only hinder the child’s growth in size and strength, and injure its constitution. Where these absurd precautions are absent, all the men are tall, strong, and well-made. Where children are swaddled, the country swarms with the hump-backed, the lame, the bow-legged, the rickety, and every kind of deformity.” He has much more to say on the matter in his seminal treatise, Emile, and we advise you to read it. (Although, it must be observed that we think he has rather overshot the mark by laying the entirety of the blame for the long practice of swaddling on the laziness and delinquency of mothers.)EmileFrontispiece

Dr. W. Cadogan, who serves as a medical advisor to the governors of the Foundling Hospital, and is an expert on the proper care of infants and young children, warns us that “a new-born Child cannot well be too cool and loose in its Dress.” It is excellent that we have his guidance for, as he notes, “at last the Preservation of Children [has] become the Care of Men of Sense … this Business has been too long fatally left to the Management of Women, who cannot be supposed to have proper Knowledge to fit them for such a Task.” While we applaud his advice, and the modern understanding of infant care that underpins it, we also recognize how bewildering it can be for new parents to decide how to dress their babes in a rational manner. Add to this the proliferation of exciting new garments like frocks, and the recent availability of cotton fabrics, and no one can blame a first-time mum for feeling perplexed. We are here to help.

Some things have not changed since your mother’s day. Your infant will still need a clout for its bottom and a shirt with a front opening. We recommend linen for both of these garments. While we are aware that there is an effort to market cottons like calico and muslin for shirts and shifts, such fabrics are simply are not sturdy enough to stand up to the frequent scrubbings that your babe’s undergarments will require. Clouts and shirts are universally plain white, which washes best, but you’ll do no harm if you add lace or embroidery to your wee one’s shirts.

Over the shirt and clout you will probably want to place a little waistcoat, bodice coat, or other top which fits closely around the babe’s body, and closes loosely behind with ties. Alternatively, you may fasten the garment with a little waistband or belt called a surcingle, as long as it still ties on. A petticoat may be stitched to this top. The strategic use of stitching and ties allows you to dress your babe with minimal use of pins. This is important as, without swaddling, the child is free to move its arms at all times and risks pricking itself. Our experts recommend flannel for the top and petticoat, but you may also use most linen weaves, or a linen-cotton mix, such as dimity.

Over the top and petticoat you will place another layer, and it is here that we see the greatest change in infant clothing. Whereas the generations before us would have wrapped their babes in layers of blankets and bindings, we understand how to construct thoroughly modern, healthy clothing.

3One such option is the frock, which has evolved from the bed used by our foremothers. The linen bed was a blanket-like length of fabric loosely pleated around the babe’s body and held in place by bands. The bed extended over the infant’s feet, and was folded up over them. Now the pleats are stitched into place, and straps are added over the shoulders, creating a garment which fastens with ties in the back. To make a full frock, the large pleats around the body are replaced by sections of tiny tucks, and gores may be added to give extra fullness to the section over the legs. Most exciting, sleeves, rather than being separate items, are sewn directly to the shoulder straps.

The same process of adding tiny tucks to the body and waist, and attaching sleeves, rather than keeping them separate, is seen in the development of the robe from the mantle and sleeves ensemble. Typically, while a frock fastens in back, a robe ties in front. The term gown denotes a similar style of garment with shaping and attached sleeves, but whether it opens in front or back is less clear. The Foundling Hospital seems to consider gowns to have front openings, but we have noticed that other people use the term almost interchangeably with frock. However that may be, all of these garments should extend beyond your infant’s feet by at least a few inches. This allows you to tuck them up around the feet as conditions warrant.

1The range of fabrics available to you is unprecedented. Generally, robes are finer garments, such as those worn for christenings, so if you can afford it you will want to make these of silk or satin. Frocks and gowns are more for everyday wear. For these you can use your standard wool or wool mixes (e.g. worsted, stuff, serge, camlet, calimanco) or linen (e.g. flaxen, cambric, Holland, lawn, Irish). The biggest news, though, is the appearance of cotton and cotton-blend fabrics, including calico, fustian, muslin and chintz. Even more exciting is the range of lovely patterns that can now be got painted or printed on linens and cottons. Of course, prints using a single color are cheaper than those with multiple colors, so there should be something to suit every taste and pocketbook, even if you get it secondhand. Any pattern or color combination that you like (and can afford) is perfect for your child, irrespective of gender.

Keep the law in mind, however! Parliament prohibited the wearing of cottons printed or painted in Asia in 1701, and those printed or painted in Britain in 1722. Although these materials can still be gotten, we, of course, advise you to steer clear of them until the prohibitions are repealed (in 1774). Printed linens and linen/cotton mixes are legal.

The stayband, which was worn over the head and pinned to the babe’s shoulders to keep its head in place, has, like swaddling, mercifully been abandoned. However, we must agree with earlier generations in one particular. It is important to keep your babe’s head covered with one or two layers, as even Dr. Cadogan agrees. Many parents still use three layers, the forehead piece, a closely fitting undercap, and a second decorative cap, and we see no harm in this. All of these items are white, and they may be made in a variety of fabrics.

2While there is a great range of cap designs, they fall into two broad categories. The first type is particularly close-fitting and is used when your babe needs extra warmth or protection. These caps are made in three sections, a main middle piece which goes from the forehead to the nape of the neck, and then a piece on each side. Such caps are often quilted or heavily embroidered. The second sort of cap is made from two sections, a caul at the back and a band which goes around the sides and forehead.

Caps are an area where you can really indulge your flair for decoration. Pleats, embroidery, lace edging and frills are all encouraged. One particularly popular and tasteful choice is “hollie point” lace, an exquisitely fine needlepoint lace. Another lovely choice is the use of ribbon decorations, and this is absolutely the only area of infant dress where the gender of your babe may make a difference in your choice. If you have a girl, you will probably choose to make your decorative ribbon into a knot of loops, called a topknot, and place it, as the name suggests, on the top of your babe’s cap. If you have a boy, you will fashion your ribbon into a flat rosette shape, called a cockade, which will be placed on the side (usually the left) of his cap. Any color or pattern of ribbon that pleases you can be used for boys or girls.WoodleyBab

For outdoor wear, or when it is very cold indoors, you may still opt to add another layer (or two) of mantle, or mantle and cloak. Both of these are shaped items that may be made of any fabric, color, and decoration. Of course cheaper woolen blankets can be substituted for either or both layers as finances dictate. While we know that some parents like to place infants in stockings and shoes, Dr. Cadogan is quite clear on the matter: “Shoes and Stockings are very needless Incumbrances, besides that they keep the Legs wet and nasty, … and often cramp and hurt the Feet.” We agree with him that it is best to leave your child’s feet free “’till it runs out in the Dirt.”

There is one final matter of dress where modern, enlightened parents are advised to break from the traditions of their own parents. This concerns the issue of nightwear. Whereas your mother would have bundled you up in the same layers of fabric and swaddling for the night as for the day, Dr. Cadogan advises only a loose, thin Flannel shirt for nighttime. Other of our experts suggest that it is acceptable to add a flannel blanket (a shaped undergarment similar to the bed, which turns up over the feet), and a thin gown to nighttime attire, but remember, use nothing that will constrict or limit your babe!TeaGarden


Ashelford, Jane. 1996. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500 – 1914. The National Trust, London.

Buck, Anne. 1996. Clothes and the Child: A Handbook of Children’s Dress in England 1500 – 1900. Holmes & Meier, New York.

Cadogan, William. 1748/9. An Essay upon Nursing and the Management of Children, from their Birth to Three Years of Age. http://www.neonatology.org/classics/cadogan.html.

Clark, Gillian. 1994. “Infant Clothing in the Eighteenth Century: A New Insight.” Costume 28.1: 47-59.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. 1762. Emile: Or, On Education. http://www.online-literature.com/rousseau/emile/1/.

Styles, John. 2007. The Dress of the People: Everyday fashion in eighteenth-century England. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.


featured image: detail from The Comforts of Industry, 1780, by George Morland. Image from: http://www.wikiart.org/en/george-morland/the-comforts-of-industry-1780.

frontispiece from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EmileFrontispiece.jpeg.

Evolution from Bed to Frock, Fabric Swatches, and Cap Designs by author’s daughter.

detail from The Woodley Family, 1765, by Johann Zoffany. Image from: http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_152916/Johann-Zoffany/The-Woodley-Family.

detail from The Tea Garden, 1790, by George Morland. Image from: http://www.wikiart.org/en/george-morland/the-tea-garden-1790#close.

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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