What to expect when you’re expecting: give the baby some gin?

GivethebabyginA recent column collected medical advice written about pregnancy 100 years ago. It serves as a reminder for critical thinking about medical recommendations for pregnant moms.

What is more deplorable and pitiable than an old couple childless? Young people dislike the care and confinement of children and prefer society and social entertainments and thereby do great injustice and injury to their health. … In fact, womanhood is incomplete without [children]. She may have a dozen or more and still have better health than before marriage.

At least, that’s what B.G. Jefferis wrote in 1920 in Searchlights on Health: The Science of Eugenics. The medical advice of Jefferis and others from 100 years ago was featured in a column by Therese Oneill in The Week. The medical experts had a lot to say about alcohol and pregnancy:

The special influence of the mother begins the moment of conception. In fact it is possible that the mental condition at the time of the generative act has much to do with determining the character of the child, though it is generally conceded that at this time the influence of the father is greater than that of the mother. Any number of instances have occurred in which a drunken father has impress upon his child the condition of this nervous system to such a degree as to render permanent in the child the staggering gait and maudlin manner in which in his own case was a transient condition induced by the poisonous influence of alcohol. A child born as the result of a union in which both parents were in a state of beastly intoxication was idiotic.

[John Kellogg, Ladies’ Guide in Health and Disease, 1884]. At the same time, the mother should take care not to see her baby’s father drunk, lest she impress that image upon the child in her womb:

A well-authenticated case illustrates the point in hand in a horribly clear and pointed manner. … [A child was born with] the muscular tremblings and the actual shambling gait of the drunkard.

This abnormal condition is thus explained and satisfactorily: The mother … believer [the father] to be temperate; indeed, never had a thought to the contrary. She was compelled to pass a grog-shop on her way, and as she came to it she heard a voice that was strangely like her husband’s singing a ribald song. She was so struck with astonishment that she involuntarily looked in at the door, not to verify, but to remove the unpleasant suspicions which the familiar voice created. There she beheld her husband in a state of hilarious intoxication. This was but a few weeks before the birth of her child. … He soon developed the peculiarities noted, which he will no doubt carry with him through life. … [This] can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than that hte impression of horror made on the mother’s mind was conveyed to the fetus within her womb.

[John D. West, Maidenhood and Motherhood, or, Ten Phases of Woman’s Life, 1887]. So, having a drunk father or even the mother seeing the father drunk can cause the baby to have the physical and mental effects of being drunk. Therefore, the logical thing to do is to avoid alcohol or even the sight of the husband drinking during pregnancy, right? Well …

A certain mother while pregnant longed for gin, which could not be gotten; and her child cried incessantly for six weeks till gin was given it, which it eagerly clutched and drank with ravenous greediness, stopped crying and became healthy.

[Jefferis, Searchlights for Health, 1920]. So, avoid all alcohol, but, then, when your baby cries, give the baby some gin? Really?

That was evidence-based medical advice 100 years ago. This advice was given in the hopes of producing healthier pregnancies, and based on examples to support the advice given. Looking back, we rightly find some of this advice downright absurd. But, let’s not be too proud.

The featured quotes were taken as sound medical advice by expectant mothers as the best information for a healthy pregnancy. They were no different than the expectant mothers of today seeking the best information for a healthy pregnancy. And, while we hope our medical advice is the product of more scientific rigor than that of a 100 years ago, it still remains the work of fallible humans.

We can laugh and shake our heads at the apparent nonsense of medical advice from the turn of the last century. We would hope parents did not take that medical advice as the gospel truth and instead exercised some critical thinking about what practices were recommended for them. But, this holds true today, as well, as Emily Oster sought to demonstrate in challenging conventional modern prenatal recommendations in her book Expecting Better.

Medical recommendations are shown time and again to need refinement, and, in the case of prenatal genetic testing, they are regularly being revised and updated. Similarly, parents today should exercise judgment when considering the medical recommendations they receive and not take medical advice as the gospel truth. Otherwise, we’d still be giving newborns gin to stop their crying.


  1. […] created this gin-and-baby graphic to accompany the post sharing medical advice from the turn of the last century, to make the point that what is considered evidence-based, state-of-the-art medical advice often […]

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