Vintage Pregnancy Advice from the Canadian Government

by | March 15, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

canmotherby Jarrah Hodge

Thrift shopping with my mom and boyfriend in North Vancouver the other day I came across a real gem: a 1947 printing of the Canadian government’s handbook The Canadian Mother and Child, by Ernest Couture, M.D., Director of the Division of Child and Maternal Health.

A little context: this is the 7th printing of the 1st edition of the handbook, and it was a really popular guide that ended up being published and distributed every year for over 30 years. An article from Canadian Encyclopedia describes how important this book and other similar guides were to women in the 1940s:

In the 1940s, child-rearing was done, literally, by the book. Janet Berton vividly remembers the one she used –Canadian Mother and Child, a brochure from the federal health department that her doctor gave her when her first child, Penny, was born in 1948. “It had wonderful pictures of old, old, old-fashioned babies and nurses in black and white,” says Berton, who with her husband, author Pierre Berton, raised a family of eight children. “But it was pretty authoritarian. You had to do exactly what it said.” Berton says she tried to follow the rules for feeding an infant on a strict timetable, every four hours, and soon wound up “in a panic” because the baby did not seem to be getting enough milk.

I had an interesting time reading the guide and learning what women like my grandmother would have been advised to do when they were pregnant in that era, and thought I’d share some of the more interesting and maybe surprising lessons with you.

"While Awaiting a Baby", photo from Library & Archives Canada

“While Awaiting a Baby”, photo from Library & Archives Canada

On the Joy of Motherhood

“The birth of a baby is the most glorious achievement in the life of a woman, for, in becoming a mother, she completely fulfils the special purpose of her life as a woman.” (p. 3)

“There is nothing more fascinating for a mother than to read about the care of a baby.” (p. 84)

“The very presence of your baby, and your feeling of love for it, should prove more eloquent than any words to persuade you to breast-feed your infant, if you are able to do so.” (p. 108)

“When you bend affectionately over your growing infant, does not the contented joy of your heart tell you powerfully that you are gazing on the most precious of all your possessions? As the infant lies, charming but helpless, and dependent on you for everything, you feel that it was fully worth those special pains on your part to give it proper nourishment, to provide the benefit of fresh air and sunshine, the comfort of cleanliness and appropriate clothes, to guard it against digestive troubles, infections and contagious diseases and accidents, and also to direct with love the first manifestations of a budding character.” (p. 203)

On Lady-Parts

“Special local examination. On no account should you let false modesty influence you in the matter of this local examination. Unfortunately this is often the case, particularly with mothers expecting their first baby. You would not forgive yourself if, through neglect of this very important examination, some mishap occurred.” (p. 7)

“For local hygiene use a mild soap, or a mild antiseptic solution recommended by your doctor or a solution of baking soda or boracic acid (1 dessert spoonful to a quart of warm water). Make sure to dry the parts thoroughly.” (p. 40)

“In a married woman, the missing of a period is usually due to pregnancy.” (p. 11)

On Leisure Time

“There is, of course, no harm in playing bridge. Indeed it is a wholesome way of relaxing, if not abused, but it is fatiguing if indulged in too frequently or for lengthy sessions.” (p. 21)

“While the radio and the movies provide pleasant diversions there is danger if some restrictions are not imposed. Real harm may be done to the nervous system by the radio which is played too loudly and too continuously.” (p. 22)

“Prolonged and closely repeated sessions at the movies may have some untoward effects particularly if the picture is of such a nature as to upset the emotions.” (p. 22)

“Nothing is so tiring as going about crowded stores…an expectant mother must forgo the pleasure of jostling at the bargain counter. For the same reason it is wise to avoid crowded places such as race meets, fairs, and exhibitions.” (p. 22)

“Attendance at sport events, such as hockey and football matches, is not suitable during these momentous months because of the excitement, and also at times on account of the prolonged exposure to cold.” (p. 22)

On Housework

“Every housewife has duties to perform in the home, and in the normal course of things, pregnancy should not interfere with these occupations…The preparation of the layette is an occupation which, by its very suggestion, is a pleasant one, and should be encouraged unless it is followed too assiduously. However, a sewing machine worked with the feet should not be used if there is any tendency toward miscarriage.” (p. 20 – FYI a layette is a collection of clothes for a newborn baby)


photo (6)
On Never, Ever Questioning Your Doctor

“Avoid medical books as such reading is easily subject to misinterpretation, and may cause undue worry over minor symptoms. Your doctor is by far your best guide.” (p. 21)

“Gatherings such as bridges and teas, are often occasions of unwise discussions as to the relative merits of doctors. After careful consideration, you have chosen a doctor, therefore, do not let yourself be influenced by those who are not qualified to advise. There is nothing more disheartening than to hear your doctor criticized, or other doctors praised above him. To be happy you need to have complete confidence in your doctor. Anyone criticizing him to you (and at the same time knowing your condition) lacks discernment to say the least, and should not be taken seriously.” (pp. 21-22)

“If you have to rely on the services of a neighbour, or so-called midwife, for your confinement or aftercare, make sure that no illness exists in her family, and that she is not connected with a febrile case elsewhere, and above all, see that she herself is healthy, clean, and tidy.” (p. 50)

“During the course of your pregnancy, do not listen to versions of their labours given to you by friends. They are likely to exaggerate the details of their experience, and give you a false impression and cause misgivings.” (p. 64)

On a Pregnant Woman’s Mood

Cheerfulness is very beneficial to your health, and there is no better tonic. There is nothing so harmful at any time as to worry, but particularly during these months…keep in mind the overflowing happiness that a delightful, lively, rosy-cheeked baby will bring to you in a few months…keep your mind busy with pleasant occupations, such as fancy work, preparation of the layette, or light gardening.” (pp. 20-21)

“Pregnancy often produces depression, irritability, hyper-sensitiveness, mental indifference, and possibly impaired judgment. None of these conditions should surprise the husband; they are phenomena which, for the time being, the wife is quite unable to control. She is then in need of particularly sympathetic treatment from her husband. His attitude should be patient, kind, and forbearing. He should take special care to avoid any remark or gesture which might increase his wife’s irritability or bring about a collapse in her weakened condition. Although outwardly she may not appear to appreciate his efforts, she secretly notices everything her husband does, and values his kindness and understanding.” (p. 36)

On What to do After the Baby is Born

“The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Days: The mother should remain in a reclining position. (She should not sit up in bed without support until the seventh day.) Besides the regular routine attention, the following exercises may be begun on the fourth day unless there is fever, tenderness in the abdomen, too abundant a flow or offensive odour from the lochia.” (p. 100)

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On Abortion

“It must be said that there is no drug nor treatment which may be used to empty the uterus, that is free of danger, and this applies to all stages of pregnancy, even the earliest. An abortion brought on in the earliest months of pregnancy is just as criminal as during the later months, and furthermore there is no guarantee of safety even when the treatment is given or the operation is done by an expert in this illegal practice. Such a practitioner is more concerned with financial gains than with the best interests of his patients.” (p. 42)

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