Originally Published May 29, 2009
Infant mortality isn’t something we think of much anymore; it has become such a rarity that it really isn’t even considered during pregnancy. Yet as I stood by my new grand nephew three weeks ago as he lay in the NICU, victim of a common virus contracted soon after his birth, the issue came back up and how important it was at the turn of the last century.
I was first confronted with this as a real issue for families in the 19th and early 20th centuries when I first visited the Crested Butte Cemetery. One family plot caught my eye; mom, dad, a girl who had died around age 6 and then a section about ten feet wide that had one stone that merely said “babies”.
Our cemeteries are full of small gravestones with lambs, iron crib frames marking the surrounds of the grave, short lived dates or just the phrase “baby” on a simple stone. In some cases, a larger stone, with mother and child on it, can be found. But the further we get into the 20th century, less and less of these stones can be found. By 1920, they are few and far between.
Infant mortality was such a big issue that many families refused to name their newborns until it seemed sure that the child would survive; sometimes “baby” didn’t get a name until after the child’s first or second birthday.
Prior to 1900, infant mortality rates (babies who died within the first year of life) could get as high as 300 deaths per 1000 live births. This fluctuated with the weather, the economy, what diseases were running through. Even early glass baby bottles were causes of infant death; they had a rubber tube that ran from bottle to nipple, and those tubes were not easy to clean, so they often contained bacteria that attacked an infant’s delicate immune system.
The 1870 mortality charts for Colorado tell a grim story, especially in the mountain counties, where infants and small children are the majority of reported deaths. Scarlet fever, whooping cough, and brain fever were commonly listed as the cause of death. Lung infections, like bronchitis and pneumonia, curable today, also took a number of small children. Costilla County for 1870, which also lists the oldest living person I’ve found so far in these records (Julian Sanchez who died at the age of 104 of old age) has 17 infant deaths out of 34 deaths listed.
Many of the Colorado census records from 1900 say things like “Seven children born to this person and three were still living.” Often the census was the only record of a family birth or death; children born at home were not always registered nor received birth certificates.
Luckily, by the beginning of the 20th century, many innovations of the industrial era improved the health and lifespan of infants – a focus on cleanliness, more babies being born in hospitals and getting immediate medical care, central heating, cheaper clothing, and later on, antibiotics and vaccinations helped lower those rates dramatically. In 2004, the rate of infant deaths per 1000 live births was only 6.3. Today, that rate is similar; most infant deaths now are due to premature births and birth defects. We can thank the industrial revolution for the innovations and inventions, medical and every day use items that have allowed us to not have to consider this eventuality.
http://www.pbs.org/fmc/timeline/dmortality.htm – timeline of infant mortality
http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/inf-mort.htm – world infant mortality maps
http://www.censusfinder.com/colorado.htm – Colorado census records available online
For Kaiden – April 25, 2009 – May 15, 2009