In pursuit of a few consecutive hours of sleep, modern parents have been criticised for drugging their lively offspring with melatonin, antihistamines, cough medicine and a full range of ‘natural’ remedies. This is nothing new. More than 100 years ago, the most popular sleep drug was Godfrey’s Cordial.
Young children who won’t sleep are not a new phenomenon; nor are desperate, sleep-deprived parents.
Godfrey’s Cordial – widely used by Australian parents to get their babies to sleep in the 1800s – was a mixture of alcohol, caraway seeds, treacle and opium.
Yes, opium is what morphine and heroin are made from. And yes, it was totally legal.
No more tears – or breathing – thanks to Godfrey’s Cordial
For about the price of a pint of beer, nineteenth century parents flocked to their local chemist in droves to get these marvellous narcotics. Also advertised as Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Dably’s Carminitive and Ayres’ Sarsparilla, opiates were used by up to 5 out of 6 working-class families in Manchester, England.
Use was also widespread in Australia. An newspaper ad in an October 1850 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald encouraged parents to be ‘never without a flask of Godfrey’s cordial… in the nursery.’
It kept babies quiet so parents could get a good night’s rest and mothers could go out and work.
Unfortunately, it also had the tendency to kill babies. In fact, opiate abuse is believed to have been a leading cause of infant death in the nineteenth century.
Death by overdose
The most obvious way Godfrey’s Cordial killed babies was through overdose. Usually this was accidental – there was no central quality control and each chemist made up mixtures varying in strength.
In some cases it may have been a deliberate way of keeping the size of poverty-stricken families under control in a time before reliable contraception. One family is recorded to have lost five babies due to opiate overdose.
Death by starvation
Most infant deaths at the hands of Godfrey’s Cordial were simply due to babies wasting away from hunger. Babies need to feed frequently, especially newborns. If they’re constantly drugged they won’t wake up often enough to get the nutrients they need. Many babies slipped from this world due to a failure to thrive – a.k.a. starvation.
A long history of opiate use to calm babies
The British, Americans and Australians weren’t the first to use opiates to get their kids to Go The F&%$ To Sleep. Papyrus records show that Ancient Egyptians also thought it was a pretty neat way to get some peace from their demanding offspring.
So next time you’re told that our generation of parents are dreadful, just take a deep breath and tell your accuser this:
At least we don’t feed our babies heroin for a bit of peace and quiet.
And remember – there’s no such thing as the good old days.
For more horrifying stories about the treatment of infants in nineteenth century Australia, pick up a copy of The Baby Farmers by Annie Cossins. You’ll feel like an absolute model parent in no time at all.
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