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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Responsibility for Child Mortality

In nineteenth century America the mortality rate of children under the age of five represented forty percent of the total death rate. As the mortality rate began to climb, due to urbanization (infant mortality was recorded as 235 per 1000 in the year 1900, although inaccurate birth records render these numbers imprecise), women began to change their attitudes toward responsibility for their children’s welfare; a responsibility that caused much anxiety. Given the high mortality rate, women’s writings suggested that “the experience of infant death formed a constant backdrop against which mothers’ experiences and emotions must be set”.4 Later, as sanitary conditions and nutrition improved, and infant mortality declined, women’s responses to their families, again, changed. While in colonial America the community helped to care for children, although “Divine Providence” was employed to explain infant death, by the beginning of the nineteenth century the belief that the mother was responsible for the welfare of the child became widely accepted. Women, working through social welfare and reform groups, began to voice their concerns over the high mortality rates of their children. The shift to making infant mortality the concern of the public, government bureaucracies, and health professionals created a culture of shared responsibility for all children.5

Despite the shared responsibility for the welfare of the young, infant death became a private matter as concern for children left God’s hands and entered the mother’s. As long as mothers were aware that children did not need to die, women did not need to resign themselves to a lifetime of mourning over children. Rather, they could employ newly found knowledge about childcare and sanitation in order to improve their children’s chances of survival.6 Mothers knew, however, that their actions alone could not create the conditions necessary within their communities to keep their babies healthy. In the early twentieth century, spurred by social reformers, mothers fought for adequate sanitation, clean water and pure milk, as well as education on childbirth and infant care. Mothers were well aware that their children had been sacrificed by their ignorance. The Federal Children’s Bureau, established in 1912, received letters from mother’s across the country asking for assistance in the matters of keeping their families alive. For example, although the Naval Academy Dairy pasteurized milk and made ice daily, none of it was available for sale to the surrounding community. The government’s indifference toward children’s well-being was reflected in the frustration of these mothers.7

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