Truby King babies

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Now in her nineties, my mother tends to remember the events of her
childhood as if they happened yesterday, while the events of yesterday, events
even of five minutes ago, she forgets.  Things slip from her mind but not
her childhood.  Her childhood is her greatest companion and comfort. 
My mother’s family as she now remembers them.  
These days when I make my routine weekly visit to my mother in her
retirement village room, she will tell me again and again how happy she is in
this glorious room that overlooks a small walled garden filled with roses and
in the centre an overflowing mulberry tree, and she will remind me of the
pleasures of her childhood.  
            
‘I can’t get this song out of my head.  You’d know it.  Oh my
papa.’  My mother shakes her head  as if to dislodge the tune and the
words, but they will not shift.  All day long she has heard the music in
her head. 
‘I loved that song,’ she says.  
I do not bother to ask for an explanation.  It is obvious.  My
mother was her father’s favourite and he hers.  Her beloved father with
whom she walked to church arm in arm.  Her beloved father, a school
gymnasium instructor, a man of short but powerful physique, a man who
disciplined his unruly sons, especially the second, the one below my mother,
the one who was his mother’s favourite.  The other five children missed
out, or so my aunt, my mother’s only sister, maintains.  
By the time they arrived their parents were
already worn out.  My mother, the oldest, considers this a nonsense. 
Long ago my mother told me about the influence of Frederic Truby King in
her life.  Her first babies were Truby King babies whenever my father was
around.  But in the middle times he was either away at work or off
fighting in the war and she could mother as she saw fit.
My mother preferred the times when my father was away she told me because she was then left free to care for her babies, to follow their whims, to put them to bed when
they were tired, to feed them when they were hungry, to hold them when they
needed holding and not to follow the rigid dictates of Truby King as
interpreted by my father. 
As a follower of Truby King my father insisted on discipline.  Four
hourly feeds.  The baby was to be held only for feeding and changing of
nappy then back to bed for the next four hours with no interference from
mother. 
They might cry, these Truby King babies, but they soon learned it was
pointless.  Their cries would go unheard.
My mother talks about this time now as an aberration.  She thinks
it stopped when there were more babies because it was all too hard for my
father to police.  I was therefore not a Truby King baby nor the one below
me, nor any of my mother’s other babies born in Australia.  
Only the first three missed out. 
I’ve read up on Truby King.  His adopted daughter Margaret wrote a
biography on her father whom she adored.  He was born and lived at the
same time as Freud, and although also a psychiatrist by training, he took an interest not in the psyche but in the body and in preventative  health care.
He trained a troop of mothercraft
nurses to deal with what he considered to be ‘over-feeding’ but the notion of
systematized four hourly feeding came from a Dr Thomas Bull in 1850.
 Truby King pushed it further until people like Dr Spock and Donald
Winnicott turned the tide and helped people to realise the importance of
feeding as an emotional experience that cannot be systematised and deserves
respect and encouragement.
It turns out that Truby king had wanted his mothercraft nurses to become
friendly advisors to the mothers in their care but instead these nurses
tyrannised the mothers and insisted on order and rule bound behaviour in much the way
my father thumped the book of rules at my mother.  
My mother then lost her
confidence and her babies suffered.  
But who am I to judge the past?  I can only speculate and wonder.  
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37 Comments on Truby King babies

  1. Elizabeth
    August 11, 2012 at 1:56 am (5 years ago)

    I don't even know what to say, how to respond. I have never heard of Truby King, and I wish that I didn't know of Truby King, now. I feel completely confident, though, to judge his child-rearing practices and can only shake my head.

    Your writing, again, is so seductive — you tell the simplest of stories yet there's so much tension — even horror — in them, until your voice clicks in at the end with a kind of authorial confidence that gives relief.

    Reply
  2. Birdie
    August 11, 2012 at 5:17 am (5 years ago)

    Sad. So sad to deprive a life of nourishment but more so, love. The damage that can't be mended. The time that can not be taken back.

    As an aside, I am always amazed at how powerful music is. I have been working in geriatrics for quite a number of years now and I have seen people that no longer no their own names and have lost all verbal communication remember the words to songs. I am taking a music therapy course soon and I can't wait to learn more about why this is so.

    Reply
  3. Windsmoke.
    August 11, 2012 at 5:20 am (5 years ago)

    First thing i thought of was that Truby King must be raising robots and not babies.

    Reply
  4. N'n
    August 11, 2012 at 6:05 am (5 years ago)

    Who are you to judge the past? Well, sorry, but you are the future (as my son is the future) and you may judge the past – & I am right there with you!

    Systemised breast feeding???!

    This article is enormously interesting. I really wish 'Freshly Pressed' would pick up things like this and highlight them. It was a seriously interesting read.

    For one thing, that psychiatrist focusing instead on preventative care… man, that was almost revolutionary!

    Terrific article. Cheers to you.
    (and I am truly sorry your mother lost her confidence, and the future suffered. May the present continue to apply its wisdom to tomorrow)

    Reply
  5. River
    August 11, 2012 at 8:35 am (5 years ago)

    This is so sad. Regimented mums and babies. Babies left to cry and cry for foods or just to be held and feel another person's touch, while the mums were probably crying their own hearts out in another room. A time best forgotten now, never to be returned to.
    My mum used to tell me a few things about how babies should be cared for, and I'd just nod and do it my way. She didn't like that much, but in the end my babies loved me more than hers did her.

    Reply
  6. Jim Murdoch
    August 11, 2012 at 10:06 am (5 years ago)

    When I read about your mother’s ability to remember her childhood with such apparent clarity I wonder, should I survive that long, what I’ll remember. I can remember episodes from every year of my life practically—I suspect my earliest memories start when I was about three—but I don’t dwell on them. When articles like this provide a prompt I can usually dredge something up—the word ‘dredge’ has reminded me of the old dredger down the harbour, for example—but unbidden I don’t rush to memories of my childhood for comfort. This is not to suggest that I had a bad childhood because I did not, far from it. I lived in an area that was under constant development in the sixties and seventies and yet the countryside and the beach were walking distance from my house. I had friends, money (even though we weren’t rich), interests that were indulged and yet I rarely think about my childhood. I feel quite detached from the boy I used to be and view my past with more objectivity than I expect most people do. When I came across those photos of my schoolmates recently I found I connected to general feelings from that time rather than memories of concrete events not that there weren’t memories but most were snippets, a few seconds here, a few there.

    Truby King I had never heard of before although I’m aware of his legacy. I recall my dad telling me about an orphanage (I think it was) where the doctors noticed that one child was doing far better than all the rest. On investigation they discovered that his cot was the one nearest to the door and, at night, the carers were popping in for wee cuddles. Ironically I was the one who rejected all forms of cuddling as a child which upset my mother no end and she was—and continued to be all her life—a very cuddly person.

    I am wary of ‘experts’. One day they’re telling us one thing, the next something else. I’m reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s Sleeper where two doctor’s from 200 years in the future discuss what the newly-defrosted Woody character has asked for:

    Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called "wheat germ, organic honey and tiger's milk."

    Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

    Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

    Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

    I never read any books on how to bring up kids. My credo was, “I’m not going to make the same mistakes my father did. I’m going to make my own.” And I did. I didn’t get the chance to be the kind of dad I would have wanted to be. I had expected I would have had charge of my daughter until she was a teenager; two days a fortnight from the age of two was not what I was looking for. I never forgave my first wife for that. There’s a lot to be said for staying together for the sake of the kids.

    Reply
  7. persiflage
    August 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm (5 years ago)

    I remember reading about Truby King. My mother said that with her first baby, my older sister, she would sit anxiously watching the clock until the four hours were up, so that she could then feed the baby.
    Probably the nurses felt obliged to respect and adhere to what the male in authority dictated.
    It is fascinating how women felt that despite fathers having little to do with the care of babies and young children, that their theories carried so much weight. Although I expect that often common sense prevailed.

    Reply
  8. Rubye Jack
    August 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm (5 years ago)

    We judge our pasts regardless so that it can show us how to be better humans by not repeating the mistakes that came before us. The past gives us something to strive for in being a better person than the one before us.

    I agree so much with what Elizabeth said in her comment about your writing.

    Reply
  9. Andrew
    August 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm (5 years ago)

    Cave women timed the feeding of their babies by the sun, every four hours, never missing. Nonsense. From time immemorial babies have been fed on demand. They cry, the mother feeds them. One can only hope that such twentieth century nonsense is dead and buried.

    Now in theory all children are treated equally, without favour from their parents. My grandmother, one of thirteen was not. She was treated like a slave to wait on her brothers and a couple of bossier sisters. Being one of the youngest, she had the last laugh by marrying a sober hard working person who made money and outliving most of her siblings.

    You can't do much better for your children than love them to bits. The rest will sort itself out in time, but love is the base.

    Reply
  10. Anthony Duce
    August 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm (5 years ago)

    I have noticed the same regarding my parents, memories of there childhood being so clear, yet memories closer to the present are so much more obscure. In many cases, the unpleasant memories have been revised. I think after a certain age, this is probably a preferred way to face the quality of life that remains. Although it is sometimes difficult to listen to the revised history.

    Reply
  11. Kirk
    August 11, 2012 at 7:08 pm (5 years ago)

    I have no idea what kind of techniques my parents used when I was a baby, or if they used any at all, as I obviously don't remember being an infant. My brother is eight years younger than me, and thus was an infant while I was in grade school. I generally remember him being doted on (long past infanthood, as a matter of fact.) My two sisters are closer in age to me, so there might have been a bit of novelty about him. He grew up extremely well-adjusted. So did my two sisters, more or less. I was the weird one of the family (probably no surprise to you, given the comments I frequently leave here.) I don't blame my mother for that, though. I do remember her telling me that the doctor had to slap me across the face right after I was born because I came out of the womb holding my breath or something. I blame HIM for the neurotic state I now find myself in (I can't blame myself; doing that will
    only make me more neurotic)

    Reply
  12. Christine
    August 11, 2012 at 8:52 pm (5 years ago)

    An interesting post… and Yes, Andrew, You can't do better by your children than lov them to bits.
    It's interesting that Truby King managed to gain such a high profile when he did. Apart from the 4 hourly feeds, his prescription for fresh air and the like reflected contemporary ideas about the benefits of the environment for the develeoping child. A protest against eugenic ideas, perhaps? Anyway you have me thinking. Thankyou for the link, too.

    Reply
  13. jane.healy
    August 12, 2012 at 7:37 pm (5 years ago)

    I have never heard of Truby King either (thankfully) but my mother had her little rules which she claimed maintained a smooth running household. I was the first born so it must have been easy to cope with the feeding, bathing, changing of just one. By the time I was 5 there were 4 of us – so the youngest was feed every 4 hours, changed, left to cry a little longer etc. When my children were born she was horrified that they fed on demand, cuddled when they cried and often carried until they slept. She would tut that I was making a rod for my own back – the kids turned out quite well though …

    Reply
  14. rhymeswithplague
    August 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm (5 years ago)

    Never heard of Truby King (thank God) but I certainly do remember "Oh, My Papa". It was sung in the mid-1950s by Eddie Fisher (who left Debbie Reynolds to marry Elizabeth Taylor). "Oh, my papa! To me he was so wonderful! Oh, my papa! To me he was so good! Gone are the days when he would take me on his knee…"

    That certainly was not the way I remembered or felt about my own father, but the song is still stuck in my head too.

    Reply
  15. Elisabeth
    August 13, 2012 at 6:02 am (5 years ago)

    I've been told my authorial voice steals energy from the narrative, Elizabeth, so I'm glad to hear it makes some sense to you and offers relief.

    As for Truby King, he was a creature of his time. He presumably meant well, but in hindsight we can see how misguided his ideas were and many people have suffered as a consequence of them.

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

    Reply
  16. Elisabeth
    August 13, 2012 at 6:52 am (5 years ago)

    I agree Birdie, music is the great soother. It can bring people together and help people in distress. It's a pity we fail to recognise more of the value of music than of these excessive rules that can systematise but also tend to destroy people's spirits.

    Thanks, Birdie.

    Reply
  17. Elisabeth
    August 13, 2012 at 7:22 am (5 years ago)

    Yes indeed, Windsmoke, it would seem the Truby King's efforts were better suited to robots than to babies. Thanks.

    Reply
  18. Elisabeth
    August 13, 2012 at 7:32 am (5 years ago)

    Well. N'n , it's lovely to see you here and to read your heartening comment. I'm not familiar with 'freshly pressed' but shall check it out.

    As for the notion of my concern about not judging the past, it's more about not trying too hard to think about past events through the lens of present knowledge. Even though to some extent we can't avoid this. We cannot but think about the way things were and are except through where we've come from.

    I suppose in using the word 'judge' here I am thinking more in terms of not being too moralistic, though again of course there are things that we need to judge as appalling: genocide and the like.

    I reckon we need to consider the past in order to learn from it but I don't mean to impute contemporary motives to those who came before us and who did not have the advantage of knowledge as it advances up till today, any more than I hope I'm not judged by future generations for my behaviour and perspectives today. We all keep changing.

    I can look on my old self as a bit of a twit or I can empathise with her and have some understanding of where she might have come from. Likewise for Truby King, he was a creature of his times, as I said earlier.

    Thanks N'n.

    Reply
  19. Elisabeth
    August 13, 2012 at 7:36 am (5 years ago)

    The regimentation of mothers and babies wherever and however it happens is sad to my way of thinking too, River.

    Babies and mothers need support and space to be with one another during those first few critical months but unfortunately society is not well disposed to the needs of many mothers and babies and as bad as Truby King's practices may have been in years gone by I reckon remnants of those attitudes remain in the way society forces things to move too quickly. The same goes with grief and all those stages in life that need quiet and reflection.

    Thanks, River.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth
    August 14, 2012 at 10:19 am (5 years ago)

    Perhaps it's the fact that I dwell on my memories sufficient to be able to enter them and to re-imagine events from my past that helps me to keep something of the past alive, Jim. Trying to remember is fundamental to me and as much as I hate the thought of losing my short term memory with increasing age like my mother, I relish the thought of going back to old memories with such clarity and precision. If only I had it now such that I could write about it. My memories feel like a deep well. There are times when I feel I've left the well dry and other times when I sense there's so much more down there.

    I certainly feel more detached from my memories, even the ones that were once emotionally laden, as if they have become someone else's. That's a good thing I think. It helps to write about events that are not too emotionally laden, at least not so much at the time of writing, though I also think it helps writing of such events that were once emotionally significant, otherwise i suspect they lack that zing.

    As for doctrine and rules about how to bring up children, I agree with you, fashions change as they do with most things and often our intuition is the best guide aided by commonsense and a pragmatic though aesthetically oriented education.

    Thanks, Jim.

    Reply
  21. aguja
    August 14, 2012 at 2:03 pm (5 years ago)

    Scary. Although it was often more difficult in times past for a woman to assert herself in a relationship. And, what is more, it still goes on today, which is why I say, 'scary'. It upsets me to think about it.

    Reply
  22. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2012 at 5:50 am (5 years ago)

    I'd like to think common sense prevailed, Persiflage, as it did with my mother but only in those early years when my father was away.

    It is fascinating as you say that women have had to bow to the authorial voice of the patriarch even when every ounce of their maternal fibre must have railed against it.

    Thanks, Persiflage.

    Reply
  23. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2012 at 5:52 am (5 years ago)

    I'm grateful for your kind words, Rubye Jack, and I agree: we ignore the past at our peril. If we don't learn from it then we cannot improve our lives on the future.

    Thanks, Rubye Jack.

    Reply
  24. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2012 at 5:55 am (5 years ago)

    I agree with you andrew about the importance of 'loving our children to bits', but how easy it is to fail in this regard.

    As for the ways in which our primitive forebears mothered, I gather from research that demand feeding was very much the norm.

    Truby King's approach might be an example of too much knowledge taken out of context and distorted to give the illusion of control and then stifling the recipients in ways that he did not imagine.

    Ah, the blindness of the seeing eye.

    Thanks, Andrew.

    Reply
  25. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2012 at 6:54 am (5 years ago)

    I agree, Anthony, the ways in which my mother revises history into a saccharine sweet version of events, the way she wants to gloss over what she calls the 'yuk' bits is disconcerting, but she herself tells me repeatedly that for her there's no point in dwelling on difficulties from the past, they only make her sad. She'd rather only remember the happy times. As a consequence she tends to airbrush out the early lives of her children – the hardest time of her life I suspect.

    Thanks, Anthony.

    Reply
  26. Elisabeth
    August 15, 2012 at 7:59 am (5 years ago)

    I don't know, Kirk, but I reckon we're all a bit weird sometimes, even the so-called well adjusted. Mind you in families it often happens that one or another member holds down the weight of eccentricity on behalf of everyone else. Maybe hat happened in yours.

    Thanks, Kirk.

    Reply
  27. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2012 at 3:47 am (5 years ago)

    Gertrud Mander's paper on Truby King is worth a read, Christine, if you can get a hold of it. She describes Truby King as a man with a vision who believed that he was doing good.

    At some level some of his ideas were forward thinking but like so many ideas they were distorted into horrible caricatures of what instinctively most of would know is not helpful.

    A crying baby and most of us itch to pick the baby up rather than leave it cry.

    I'm glad you found this post useful. Thanks, Christine.

    Reply
  28. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2012 at 3:53 am (5 years ago)

    Traditions change across generations, Jane, as you suggest and certainly when a mother has many children, more than one or two expect the opportunity to nurse the babies on demand are somewhat reduced.

    The trend these days at least in the western world seems more infant friendly, though that's the theory not the practice.

    I'm glad your lot did well, which doesn't surprise me given your description of your mothering. Unlike your mother, I don't believe it's possible to 'spoil' an infant. But it's easy to deprive one.

    Thanks, Jane

    Reply
  29. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2012 at 3:56 am (5 years ago)

    I remember the Papa song too from my childhood too but I don't have your wonderful recall for the singers of the song and their lives, Rhymeswithplague.

    And aren't you lucky you weren't a Truby King baby.

    Thanks RWP

    Reply
  30. Elisabeth
    August 16, 2012 at 3:58 am (5 years ago)

    The degree to which patriarchal authority lives on today is scary, Aguja but hopefully things are beginning to balance out a bit more – though we're not there yet. And mothers – at least in some places – can better stand up for the needs of their babies.

    Thanks, Aguja

    Reply
  31. Zuzana
    August 18, 2012 at 8:40 am (5 years ago)

    Dear Elisabeth, I am not a mom, despite the fact that it was the only thing I ever wanted from life (and finding someone to love) – well getting 50% of my wishes come true is not so bad.;)
    But my destiny wanted otherwise, and now I am a step mom.;) Actually am going to take care of my 3 step kids for 9 days on my own, starting today.;) It is a funny thing be "thrown" into parenthood. I do not not hold the slightest clue about raising kids, teenagers that is. I can only follow my instincts and the memories from my own childhood. Now in my old age I take comfort in the saying "Any idiots can have kids and they usually do", so I guess not everyone is fit for parenthood – but I just tend to believe in my naivete that all parents try their best.:)
    Sorry about your moms failing memory, in some way it is most likely very comforting to recall the long gone past and only the good things about it.;)
    Have a nice weekend,
    xoxo

    Reply
  32. Elisabeth
    August 20, 2012 at 10:14 am (5 years ago)

    I reckon it must be difficult to be a step mother, Zuzana, especially to adolescents. More power to you for taking on this role. And nine days of it on your own – wow.

    But it must also be a joyous experience, having as you say, an opportunity to experience something that might otherwise have been denied you.

    Thanks, Zuzana.

    Reply
  33. diane b
    August 31, 2012 at 6:47 am (5 years ago)

    Baby rearing theories seem to change from one generation to the next. My daughter does it slightly different to what I did. Sadly I think there was a tinge of King still around when I was being advised even though D Spock was in vogue then.

    Reply
  34. Elisabeth
    August 31, 2012 at 7:32 am (5 years ago)

    I agree, Diane, baby rearing theories change across generations. It's probably better if we trust our instincts in this regard, that is as long as our instincts are based in good-enough experiences.

    Thanks, Diane.

    Reply
  35. Anonymous
    January 30, 2013 at 11:04 pm (5 years ago)

    I have heard of Truby King, Karatane nurses and Plunket. My mother was a Truby King trained nanny in the 30's and 40's before I was born. She is dead now and I can't ask her questions about the training. However, my daughter is in NZ and took her first child to a Plunket play group which was great. I have a NZ friend who is in her early 70's who was trained as a Karatane nurse and still is in great demand to help exhausted mothers of young babies.

    I don't know if my mother used the Truby King regeme to bring me up during my first few years, but I know she was the most loveing mother to me and my sister, and we suffered no hardship from her what so ever.

    Reply
  36. Anonymous
    July 20, 2014 at 11:32 am (3 years ago)

    I was a Truby King baby – and I wish that was not so.

    I’m 59 now and dealing with my mother – now 91, frail and rapidly losing her grip on her faculties. While I feel compassion for her as she edges towards her death I find I can bring very little kindness to her in her current circumstance. Rather the best I can do is to react to her needs in a somewhat detached and clinical manner. Managing her needs as best I can, but limiting my engagement with her.

    The irony here is profound.

    This is, apparently, the way she dealt with me as a baby – teaching me “routine” and “obedience”. Teaching me that there was no point in my crying as she would not respond. Now she reaps the harvest of that behaviour.

    So sad – for us both.

    Reply
  37. Anonymous
    September 3, 2014 at 10:10 am (3 years ago)

    My ex-husband was totally damaged by a mother who wanted to raise the Ideal Son. Thanks to her and Truby King he has been severely depressed all his life, never have I or his family seen him happy, and he has made life a misery for all who knew him. I have never thought this his fault as I knew what a pernicious regime had been applied to him. What a total waste of his life!

    Reply

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