Friday, September 16, 2011

The High Mortality Rate of Infants and Children

A lamb is the one of the
symbols for a child's grave

September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month and an appropriate time to explore the tombstones of infants and children.

Cherubs mark childrens' graves 
Child 'sleeping' 
I love going to the cemetery, strolling, thinking, taking photos. But when I come across a stone marking the death of a young child, a baby, or an infant, the colors of life, in that moment, seem to drain a bit.  In the twenty-first century, it seems so wrong for a person to die young, but before the mid-twentieth century, it was common.  In fact, the farther back in time you go, the more it was to be expected. 

Three Lambs indicate that
3 children are buried here
Mortality rates for children, those ten and under, have always been high.  No matter what a parents social standing, children died due to infections, disease and poor nutrition.  Poor prenatal and postnatal care were also factors.  Not until the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, did scientists and doctors even begin to understand what caused certain illnesses and how they were spread.

Lamb in shell for protection
Born and died same day
From Colonial times to the latter 1800’s, 25 to 30% of white infants would not survive their first year.  The rate for black babies was around 35%.  Probability and expectancy was high that a typical family would loose at least one infant during its first 12 months.

Mother and 3 children

George lived almost 4 months.
His mother also died.
Two children
from one family
Early pioneer women had a child approximately every 26 to 30 months.  According to the Indiana Historical Society, “Over sixty percent had six to nine children, thirty percent had ten or more, and only ten percent gave birth to less than six children in their lifetime. According to 1840 census figures, women in Hamilton County, Indiana had an average of eight children during their lifetime.”

Mother and baby
floating on cloud
Mother portrayed as an angel
carrying her baby away
During that time, mothers fared little better.  Puerperal fever, an infection of the uterus, usually contracted after delivery and caused by doctors and midwives not washing their hands, was the main cause of death during childbirth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Breech births also added to the toll, compromising mother and infant. A breech birth sometimes led to unstoppable bleeding in the mother and suffocation of the baby.

Four lambs signify the deaths
of four children
Child who died before
leading infant to heaven
Living conditions in the U.S. inner cities were terrible and also contributed to high infant mortality rates.  Poverty brought on unclean living conditions, a lack of sanitation, and the quick spread of disease from one to another.  All of these conditions made inner city infant mortality rates around 30%. It took a better understanding of what roles sanitation and prenatal health played in order to enact such regulations as the 1897 New York law mandating that children be vaccinated against smallpox. 

Infant daughter
Infant son
It's interesting to note that many infants were not named when they were born.  Some were not given a name until they had reached that crucial first birthday.  If a baby died during the first few days of life, it was probably not named.  There are many stones in the cemetery, which are only identified as “Infant,” or “Baby.”  Many times gender was not indicated.   Parents and family members simply referred to the infant as he or she, waiting to see if it would survive.  The longer an infant survived, the more likely it went through the naming and baptism ceremonies.  Although this seems cold by today’s standards, it could be argued that by not naming an infant, whose rate of survival was only 70 to 75%, parents and family members were able to remain somewhat detached, finding a coping mechanism of sorts, in the lose of so many children in one family.

Only a first name
Only parents identified
In 1900, the rate of infant survival was still only 80% - with a 20% expectancy that the infant would not make it to the age of 10.  Once a child reached tens years of age, he or she still had only a 60% chance to reach adulthood.  Causes remained the same, poor nutrition, infectious diseases and sanitation.  Once doctors understood what caused cholera, small pox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio, and how these diseases were spread, cures were embarked upon.

Child's stone
It is amazing, and sobering, to realize how many families lost children from the settling of this country, up to the mid-1900’s.  And while we in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, have seen those numbers drastically reduced within the past 60 years, other countries such as  Angola, Afghanistan and Nigeria continue to have high infant mortality rates due to a lack of sanitation, poor nutrition and the spread of infectious diseases.  Let us hope it does not take another sixty years for changes to be made in those countries.

~ Joy 


  1. Really, really fascinating! Thank you, Joy.

  2. What a touching monument to the two little Porter children, thanks for sharing your fascinating knowledge as always.

  3. Thank you both! It's always wonderful to share information with people of the same interests!

  4. What a nice blog. Thank you for sharing all this information. Warmly, Rosemary