Hygiene and infants

Of all passengers, infants were the most vulnerable. Infant mortality was high at this time in any case, but on board ship infants were known to be particularly at risk. Much depended on the overall health of the mother and her capacity to breast feed her infant. On or off ships, breast feeding was crucial to the survival of young infants. Where the mothers of young babies were sea sick for extended periods, their capacity to breast feed almost certainly diminished immediately and the infants would have languished accordingly. On these ships, there was no alternative food suitable for infants.

Keeping babies clean was another challenge, given the absence of washing facilities. Intending emigrants were often warned to avoid travelling with infants, or more especially if an infant was expected, but such advice was quite unrealistic.  The South Australian Company actively sought young married couples, who of course, were at peak fertility. Women at this time commonly bore new babies every two or so years, so that they were constantly either feeding infants, or expecting new ones. Not surprisingly, small children and infants travelled on these voyages and some were born. How then, did their mothers manage changes of nappies?

The short answer is that we don’t really know. Mothers were advised to bring sufficient napkins with them, so that they could literally dispose of used nappies overboard as soon as they were removed. But the strict baggage limitations would have rendered this impossible, especially for steerage passengers, so we can only assume that women either dried wet nappies out and re-used them, or washed them out – in sea water if necessary. How they managed soiled nappies while battened down during storms is another challenge for the imagination!

It is also unclear what effect these primitive regimes of infant care had on the babies. Was nappy rash prevalent? If so, how could mothers treat it?  Ironically, bathing infants in sea water might actually have helped, but unfortunately we don’t know the answers to these questions, because the sources we have are silent on these routine domestic matters. We do know that infants died on voyages to South Australia over the years, and that sometimes they literally wasted away, but we have no definitive evidence about the reasons why.

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