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Chemistry LibreTexts

12.2: Childhood in a Dangerous Time

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  • It has been estimated that a quarter of all infants in 18th century New France failed to make it to their first birthday and that nearly half died before they were 10 years old.[1] Matters were no better a century later: mid-19th century Montreal witnessed infant mortality rates of 250 per thousand live births. The rate was even higher on the other side of the continent; in Victoria, Kamloops, and Nanaimo near the end of the century the rate was almost 300 per thousand.[2] (In comparison, the Canadian rate is now below five per thousand live births.) Conditions varied sharply from place to place but it is likely that childhood mortality (that is, dying between one’s first and fifth birthday) was nearly as bad. In short, it is possible — and certainly plausible — that a third to a half of all live births in late 19th century British North America ended in death before the age of five.

    Historians of childhood have struggled with these figures. What were the implications of such a high death rate for relationships and the experience of childhood? Some historians have taken the view that the high incidence of infant death (along with stillbirths and miscarriages) impacted the development of strong emotional bonds between parents and children. As one study claims,

    Parents resisted making large emotional investments in their children until they demonstrated their ability to survive. The delay in naming infants and the practice of giving the name of a child who had died to a subsequent child are cited as practices which demonstrate this relative lack of attachment. Thus, a situation of high infant mortality is in a sense a vicious circle, with children valued less because they are less likely to survive, and with the lower emotional investment in children reducing their survival chances.[3]