Immersion Events and Really Small People
The fast-approaching event season presents families with many options for living history activities. You might find yourself contemplating local “smorgasbord” events, historic house events, civic commemorations, semi-immersion events, or even full-immersion events designed to be functional laboratories for living history enthusiasts. Immersion events post some unique challenges to families with infants or very small children. With planning and determination, it is possible to combine immersion and infancy, without accuracy compromises.
The first thing to keep in mind is that even with the best planning, not every infant will be able to cope in an immersion event structure. Babies who must nap in their own crib at specific times of day, or those who will only eat while holding a purple fuzzy dinosaur doll, will not be good candidates for an immersion event. Those with medical challenges may not be able to cope with the dust, pollen, and air temperature/quality changes at an average event (even indoors.) If your baby is one who adapts well to new situations, doesn’t rely on modern pacifying devices, and has a good, sound constitution, you’re starting strong.
Considerations from the Belly Out
Food & Drink:
Nursed babies will be the easiest to feed; mothers might like the convenience of a nursing-adapted corset, or may be just fine feeding in a normal corset.
Babies who are fed with modern formula present a challenge: there will be no “backstage” for discreet modern bottle feeding, nor hidden space for the modern equipment that goes along with it. However, if you know a few months in advance that you will have a bottle-fed infant with you, begin to train Baby to take formula from a thick glass tumbler or ceramic mug. Babies as young as three months can be taught to sip their meals from period-appropriate drinkware without modern adaptive sippy lids. Mother, Father, or another attentive person holding the cup and monitoring the liquid flow. Bring extra huck towels. Formula can be transferred to a food-safe crock; adequate “home” water should be brought in glass bottles (such as wine bottles) or food-safe repro jugs if there is any question of Baby’s tolerance for the on-site drinking water.
Weaned and older infants or toddlers should be taught to drink from period-reproduction drinkware without sippy lids or straws prior to the event. Jugs and bottles of “home” water might again be needed. Be aware that modern pasteurized milk may not be able to be kept fresh in an immersion event kitchen; there are both health benefits and risks in drinking raw milk from known hygienic sources, and each family must decide for themselves whether they will do it, or not. Water (brought from home) may be the best beverage option for your weaned child at an immersion event.
Many period foods are safe and tasty for infants and small children. Various cereals can be ground fine and softened to a paste with boiling water, then spooned up for children (wheat, oats, rice); commercially prepared infant cereals will need to be transferred to period-appropriate containers. Breads and crackers can be softened in warm water or milk, or spread with butter or preserves for a solid breakfast, lunch, snack, or dinner.
Boiled or baked root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes) are enjoyable for most small babies and toddlers. Fried potatoes are a treat for those used to self-feeding “bits.” Soups and stews with soft-boiled meats and vegetables can be strained or mashed. Harder cheese (such as medium and sharp cheddar) do not generally require refrigeration during the space of a short-term (less than 1 week) immersion event; the cheese will be soft and have a somewhat oilier texture at room temperature. This softening actually makes them easier for Baby to chew, and the flavor comes out more, as well.
Dried fruits may be chopped and softened with boiling water. Raw fruits in season may be difficult for very small children to eat (apples and pears, for instance); berries in season are enjoyed by most babies, but will stain—so don’t forget pinafores, or dress them in Sunday Best just before serving blackberries. Be sure to watch portions; too many fresh fruits and veggies to a body unused to the quantities can cause some quite spectacular and terrifying intestinal effects.
Investigate period cookie recipes; many teething babies will enjoy a good nosh on a gingersnap or two. Rusks are twice-baked biscuits, similar to modern biscotti (but without the almonds), and are also lovely for teethers (if messy.)
Unrelated to food, but related to mouths: pacifiers. If your baby uses one, be aware that they will not be appropriate in an immersive period setting, and there is no off-time area where you will be able to “plug baby in” without disrupting the scenario. If your baby is absolutely inconsolable without a binky, it may be best to visit the event as a part-time day participant (living off-site) rather than a full-time immersion participant; this will allow you to schedule your participation around naps and quiet time, and retreat to modern settings to provide a modern pacifier.
There will not be a backstage area to allow for discreet modern disposable diaper changes. Cloth diapering may be the most difficult aspect of immersion with infants. You must plan for at least one-dozen cloth diapers, and one or two woolen “soakers” (which, happily, can either be knit at home of wool and lightly felted, or purchased from “natural diapering” businesses; the idea hasn’t changed much since the mid-century, but don’t use acrylic yarns or Kool-aid dying!) One-dozen cloth diapers will allow for about one day’s diapering; these will need to be washed and dried while at the event.
Plan ahead for messy diapers: lay a “disposable” swatch of cotton flannel in the middle of the cloth diaper to catch the majority of the mess (particularly useful if Baby’s stools are usually firm), and dispose of the flannel swatch into whatever receptacles have been established for human waste. This eliminates most of the gross factor, and makes them far easier to soap and rinse well in hot water, then hang to dry. The flannel or plain cotton strips may be ripped from well-washed yardage or old white sheets, to be about 5” wide and 9” long. With 45” wide goods, one yard of cloth can yield 36 strips. Additional squares of flannel, wet with warm water, serve in place of disposable wipes. These may either be discarded with other human wastes, or washed, dried, and reused. Rip the strips and squares so you may skip hemming.
Diapers that have only been wet may be lightly soaped and rinsed well in hot water, and hung to dry; if they are made in a single layer and folded for absorbency during use, they will dry much faster. Plan to bring a small ball of twine and 12-24 “legged” clothespins to use as a drying line, and a decent sized basin to hold the hot washing/rinsing waters—no one will want to volunteer a cooking pot for the task.
Modern travel cribs, bouncy seats, pack-n-plays, and other portable sleeping options will not be useful.
Non-mobile babies may be very comfortable sleeping on a folded quilt, or co-sleeping with a parent (though you will want to select a firm sleeping surface rather than a feather bed, to avoid possible risks of suffocation in the mattress.) You might also look for a wicker-work “Moses” basket and fit it out with a firmly-stuffed cotton mattress (like a tiny futon pad); squarish reproduction laundry baskets also work for sleeping babies, as do dresser drawers with a quilt folded into the bottom. Small babies tend to worry far less about their sleeping situation than the parent does.
Once Baby becomes more mobile, it’s important to be able to confine him reliably; again, baskets, crates, and drawers may work, as will co-sleeping, though be prepared for a night of toes in your face and lovey kicks. Be comforted that historically, parents have enjoyed such delights of co-sleeping for many centuries. The bags under your eyes will be historically accurate.
Baby will need appropriate sleepwear. If the nights are cool, be sure to include a small knit wool or cloth sleeping cap. Simple cotton or cotton flannel gowns can be worn to bed; Baby may also sleep in her undergarments, which will be discussed further down. Very light wool stockings are good to add on cold nights; light cotton stockings on merely cool nights do help.
Accept that you will not be able to be fully attentive to every aspect of the event; you will have a good deal of time apart, getting Baby down to nap or sleep, and watching over them. Never leave a sleeping baby unattended at an event, particularly one attended by the public.
Babies and toddlers like to play. It’s one of their prime “first person” activities! Come prepared with a small stock of historically appropriate playthings. Carved wooden rattles and spoons make good chewing and sucking toys for little ones; cloth balls, dolls, and small carved animals are also popular with the under-five set. Remember, you won’t have room for a whole trunk of playthings—focus on the two or three things that will most easily fit in your satchel, and plan to spend a good deal of time interacting directly with your child (or passing them off to a willing substitute Great Auntie for a game of Horsey Giddyup, Peek-a-boo, or Pat-a-cake.) If children are trained to respond only to electronic entertainment, they will find this change of stimulation very difficult to handle—prepare well ahead!
Baby will need just as complete a wardrobe as you will, in 100% natural fibers from the skin out. Rely on cotton and linen to keep cool; add wool (cloth or knit, with silk linings!) to keep warm. Several light layers will always be preferable to one thick layer of clothing. It’s always a great idea to have a spare shawl of soft wool; these will serve as outerwear, a play-mat, or bedding, as needed. Our simple fringed shawl project is ideal for infant shawls; the sizing is the same, 60″ x 60″, which gives the shawl a huge range of utility.
Infant’s clothing is rather more complicated than modern baby clothing, with tapes, buttons, and hooks as fasteners. I’ve written some fairly complete guidelines for infant clothing in other articles, and will simply refer the reader there. Infant clothing can be entirely made at home, using patterns from original sources, or modern patterns that compile multiple original sources, such as our infant patterns in the Marketplace.
General Safety Awareness:
Babies, toddlers, and small children should never be left unsupervised at a history event.
Living history often involves flame and heat sources. Watch babies and small children extremely closely around any candles, lamps, gaslights, fireplaces, and coal or wood burning stoves. Do not let children play near food preparation areas (particularly if water is on to boil.) Be wary of tablecloths; early walkers may grasp and pull an entire tabletop of dangerous things down on themselves.
Upon arriving, take a tour of the event location, with a sharp eye out for potential danger zones: stairs, ledges, open troughs, vats, or cauldrons of water, streams, cellars, porch and stair railings, windows, stoves, heaters, outhouses… any place a child could overbalance, fall, climb, or trip, really.
Be courteous in enlisting the help of fellow participants. Any reasonable adult will be quick to warn or remove your child from a dangerous situation—thank them! If you must leave Baby with another, be sure to ask politely first, limit the time commitment, and offer generous thanks on your return. Never hand off a soiled, wet, or starving infant unless the situation requiring your presence elsewhere is one of life and death. Do your best to minimize a child’s fussing, particularly at night; other participants will generally be lenient to any shortcomings if they can see you are making a great effort.
Be prepared for Baby to be a bit of a celebrity. Infants and toddlers in immersion events are still a novelty. Unless you have pressing health concerns (and if you have those, stay home!), don’t be afraid to let Baby go to others when they ask. A great many honorary Aunties and Uncles are met this way.
Storing the Baby Gear:
Obviously, your Winnie Pooh diaper bag isn’t going to work. Baby clothing folds very small; the bulkiest items in the arsenal will be diapering supplies. A small-to-medium satchel will usually hold everything neatly. Alternatives include small wooden trunks, crates, and boxes, pasteboard cases (like a hatbox), and neatly folding everything into her sleeping basket (if used), covered over with a blanket or cloth to prevent things falling out. Do your best to keep all your belongings tidy and centralized; no one will appreciate slipping on a drooled-upon rattle in the middle of the floor. Leave your car seat/carrier in the car.
What tips or tricks do you have for accurate baby gear in immersive living history settings?