The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Childish Ailments

by Dr. Esther Colebrook
Volume 12, no. 9, 1901, pgs. 853-857

If we leave aside infectious diseases, we find that most childish ailments can be grouped in relation to the three principal needs of physical life—Fresh air, Food and Rest, the sources of supply to the breathing apparatus, the digestive system and the brain.

Respiratory Ailments

The beginning of trouble with the breathing organs is the common cold connected with which there are so many wrong impressions and superstitions. As a rule, colds have nothing to do with "taking cold." It is either a question of simple infection from another person or of over-sensitive mucous membranes which have become delicate through "coddling." Certainly the way to prevent colds is to fearlessly plunge into an open air system of living. Throw open your windows widely and you need have no fear of draughts. The tendency to take cold disappears almost magically in houses where the air is never stagnant and the windows never shut. Still, where the pure air is supplied, we must further see that it is properly breathed in and that nose-breathing day and night is supplying the air to the lungs filtered as nature intends it to be.

Winter coughs, asthma, adenoid growths are very largely a question of low general vitality and are to be met by endeavouring to render the whole body vigorous and hardy. In a climate such as ours where continual changes are the only certain feature, it is obviously common sense to train ourselves to be indifferent to variation, and this is only done by taking all weather as it comes and making no difference except in our clothing. We cannot keep delicate children out of the way of bad weather, but we can prevent their being harmed by it if we brace them so that they do not notice it.

Digestive Ailments

Perhaps the commonest trouble of nursery days is what we call a feverish attack; let me give this ailment a more accurate description. The child is heavy and "out of sorts," his tongue is furred, the pulse quick and he is usually either cross or drowsy. The temperature is 100 or 101, perhaps even higher and visions of measles, scarlet fever begin to float across our view. Some people send for a doctor, some others give a dose of castor oil or grey powder, allow the child to starve, keep him warm and quiet, and behold, the next day, all is different and the ghost of scarlet fever has vanished as quickly as it came. What has happened in this case? Probably the stomach was overburdened with something it could not dispose of. This may not have been taken just before, because, as a rule, we hear "but he has had nothing that could have upset him." But perhaps the proportion of food has been wrong, and though the digestive organs are marvellously tolerant, especially in the young, at last they rebel and they do it as follows:—The blood becomes over-charged with rich irritating material, and when this blood gets to the brain in irritates the nervous centres that have to do with the production of heat. They are excited and produce more heat, hence the fever. Now, this fever is not wholly bad, for it means increased activity all over the body to burn up and destroy the offending poisonous products that are causing the trouble. But at the same time, high fever will be followed by exhaustion, so we do not want to trust to fever to work a cure, as we can cut things short more simply than that. Our object is to get rid of the poisonous material and to clear the blood—we give an aperient, castor oil, grey powder, a dose of salts, and the symptoms after a time subside. Why? The medicine stimulates the digestive tract to secrete its various juices. These are drained from the blood, and with them come the irritating substances which are causing the fever. Also, the muscles of the intestines are stimulated to contract and push along their contents, and, again, the medicine may directly attack the contents of the stomach and intestines, stop the fermentation and production of gas which was going on, and act as a disinfectant to any toxic or poisonous matters it may find there. Thus, in three ways, the dose of grey powder or salts goes to work to get rid of the offending material and enable the body to start fresh, and, while this is going on, do not put more food in. The child has no appetite and he is right in refusing food. Let him drink; the fierce fire within him calls for cooling, and if the drink he takes is partly milk he will get from that plenty of nourishment for the time being. If he is sick so much the better; once the irritation is expelled either by mouth or bowels, or both, a rapid improvement takes place.

But while we may comfort ourselves with the knowledge as to what to do for a feverish attack, we would rather prevent it, and this, of course, is a matter of general dieting, on which there is much to be said.

In the first few weeks of life almost every ailment should be looked at from the point of view of diet, whether it be constipation, diarrhoea, sickness, wasting, or general crossness. That horrible invention—the long-tubed bottle—is now, like the four-post bedstead, almost extinct except among the poor, but how often have I found the cause of an infant's illness by one smell at the mouth of its feeding-bottle. Those rubber teats must be frequently examined—do not be content with saying, "But it must be sweet and clean, for it is always kept in water." Whatever you do to clean it, put your result to the simple test of smelling it, and if you find an odour at all, consider your methods have failed and try another.

Passing beyond the purely milk stage, we come upon some peculiarities in the dieting of children, of which I would single out three—
(a) an almost universal craving for sugar,
(b) a less common but still pretty general dislike of fat and seasonings,
(c) a continual need for milk.

Now, sugar the child will have, and wisely so. The processes of growth mean continued activity, a quickly burning vital fire. It is a blaze, but it is not really untrue. Sugar, more quickly than any other food material, is converted in our bodies into energy. The German army authorities have seen this in ordering that, on fatigue marches, special rations of sugar (as chocolate) shall be served out to the men. Now, combine the craving for sweetness with the dislike of fat, and we hit upon a useful plan. Fat is necessary and it also is a quickly burning form of fuel, but its richness as undiluted fat is the child's objection. As suet pudding with golden syrup it meets with as much acceptance as a slice of fat from a sirloin would incur dislike. A slice of fat bacon may not please, a piece of bread dipped in the melted juice is very different. Cream may nearly always be added if fruit is given too, and malted "cushions" or pure barley sugar are wholesome as well as acceptable. A thin, delicate child will also be helped by "Virol," and Frame Food jam is a rational attempt to convey nourishment in an acceptable form. Honey, treacle, brown bread, and fruit freely used would render the medicine chest much less necessary. But, while we rightly consider tastes, the children must not see this. Let them see an undaunted front, a simple expectation that they will eat what is provided, and you will find it go. I am deeply thankful to have been brought up to eat up my food straight away and leave none of it. Fat and lean all went together, and I remember once being so surprised at hearing a visitor say, "Your little girl is very good; mine won't touch fat." I mentally commented, "But I have to; is it being good when you have to?"

It is treading on the moral ground of previous lectures to deal with obedience, but nowhere all through child life is the value of obedience more felt than in sickness—every doctor knows the hopelessness of trying to treat a child who has never learnt to control himself, and even if a doctor, with the mysterious power of strangeness to help him, can succeed with a refractory child, he knows that the medicine may as well stay in his surgery, for the mother will never get it down alone. And, as regards milk—never forget that milk is a natural food all through the growing period, and must take its place with meat and bread. School children are very apt to be underfed—especially girls—and it would be wise to weigh them every holidays and compare weight with height and age.


The need for rest in the child's life is often overlooked. The intense vitality of a growing child calls for long periods of repair, and a day is a very long time to live through for a small child. Up to the age of four, it should most undoubtedly be divided by an interval of sleep, and all through early childhood, activity should alternate with rest, and active romps be followed by quiet nursery employments, in the open air whenever possible. Dr. Warner's fatigue test should be known widely. He found that if a class of children were made to extend their hands in front of them (in the air), with the fingers spread widely open, the position of the extended fingers served as a excellent index to the condition of the child's brain. If the fingers drooped, fatigue was present and rest and relaxation were called for. At the beginning of the day, the healthy children's fingers had an upward and backward inclination, expressive of nervous energy and force, while, after the morning's work, the output of energy could be read in the downward curve. Sleeplessness is often a trouble of nervous children, and a simple remedy for this, very often forgotten, is a hot-water bottle to the feet. Even if the feet do not feel cold, a hot-water bottle will often comfort a child to sleep, and if it is thought that this is an example of the very "coddling" which at the beginning I deprecated, let me assert that the importance of sleep is so great, that any method of producing it not in itself harmful should be allowed, as the end justifies the means.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009