“To which doubtless are owing the many Distortions and Deformities we meet with everywhere:” Fears of Swaddling in Early Modern England

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This week Stephanie Allen writes about early modern attitudes to swaddling. 

16th century, swaddled child. from the Wellcome Collection online (1)

Swaddling is recognised today as an important method of ensuring the health and comfort of babies. Yet, the use of swaddling has a long history. In early modern England, babies were swaddled not for comfort, but to promote healthy skeletal development in growing infants. Texts which instructed on its proper use, however, also allowed fears of the atypical body to emerge because if done incorrectly swaddling caused bodily deformity.

In 1671 Jane Sharp wrote in her midwives’ book that, regarding new-borns it was important that midwives were

sure that all parts be bound up in their due place and order gently, without any crookedness, or rugged foldings; for infants are tender twigs, and as you use them, so they will grow straight or crooked…lay the arms right down by the sides, that they may grow right.

Sharpe described the malleability of babies’ bodies, and how their limbs should be positioned to encourage healthy development. Contemporary opinion was that the soft and undeveloped nature of infant’s bodies, meant that they were susceptible to manipulation.

Concerns about the dangers of swaddling persisted into the eighteenth century. Nicolas Andry’s orthopaedic text argued in 1743 that ‘The most part of children that are rickety, owe that disease to the ill manner in which they are swaddled,’ indicating that certain ailments were caused by swaddling due to their amended body. Having the baby in the wrong position when swaddling could affect ‘the shape of the body’ and the overall health of the baby. He believed that people chose to swaddle babies due to their consistent movement, but instead of it encouraging the correct development, it could result in a hindering of their ‘natural extension; and by this means occasions deformities which we should not see, if nature was left at liberty to conduct and direct this affair herself without trouble and constraint.’ Nature had formed all bodies, and if left to their natural devices they would continue to strive and remain healthy, it was when individuals sought to control an infants body that they put them at risk of deformity.

Similarly, Physician and writer on childcare and nursing, William Cadogan wrote in 1748 that

that Nature has made Children able to bear even great Hardships, before they are made weak and sickly by their mistaken Nurses. But besides the Mischief arising from the Weight and Heat of these Swaddling-cloaths, they are put on so tight, and the Child is so cramp’d by them, that its Bowels have not Room, nor the Limbs any Liberty, to act and exert themselves in the free easy manner they ought. This is a very hurtful Circumstance, for Limbs that are not used, will never be strong, and such tender Bodies cannot bear much Pressure: The Circulation restrained by the Compression of any one Part, must produce unnatural Swellings in some other; especially as the Fibres of Infants are so easily distended. To which doubtless are owing the many Distortions and Deformities we meet with everywhere.

Cadogan believed that nature had created human bodies to withstand a multitude of affects and did not need to be moulded or protected from external impact in this manner. Unlike other authors, Cadogan listed a series of side effects that swaddling could have on the baby’s body, such as overheating, cramping, and restricted blood flow and movement. Many of these would have been uncomfortable, if not painful, for the child and may have caused long term effects on the limbs and internal organs due to the compression. Cadogan was strongly against the use of swaddling and tight clothing, instead he recommended loose clothing that did not restrict or manipulate the body’s shape.

This post has briefly examined early modern fears of swaddling babies, and how its incorrect use could have cause bodily deformity. The research has stemmed off of my wider doctoral project which assesses deceptive and defective bodies and discusses bodily amendments.



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Stephanie is a final year Ph.D. student at the University of Hertfordshire. Her doctorate thesis is on the defective and deceptive body in early modern England. In 2018 she was awarded the Social History Society’s Postgraduate Paper Prize for her work on counterfeit virginity in early modern England. Currently, she is preparing her thesis for submission this summer and is working on her first article.


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