Sadly, about 20% of babies did not survive their first year of life, a heartbreaking reality for our ancestors. Many families suffered from the loss of their young children from poor diet, disease, unsanitary conditions or harsh living environments. Few were the families who did not lose at least one child and many families lost several children before their fifth birthday. Was that the case with your ancestors?


Many children, especially those from working class families, survived on not much more than bread and tea in their early years, an inadequate diet. Meat was prohibitively expensive for some and vegetables were limited by the seasons in the days before global distribution. Food preservation was limited to drying and perhaps canning in the days before refrigeration making menu choices few.


Childhood ailments such as measles, scarlet fever and meningitis were often fatal in the years before antibiotics and advanced medical care. Other diseases, now virtually eradicated, such as smallpox, cholera, typhoid fever and typhus could tear through a community killing indiscriminately.

Poor Sanitary Conditions

In the urban environments of our ancestors, overcrowding and poor sanitation led to poor health. Children were crowded into one bed, often laying head to toe. Infants died from being smothered when their parents rolled over on them in the only bed. Raw sewage often flowed in the streets and gutters and bathroom facilites might have been shared by a whole block.

Harsh Environments

Some of our ancestors chose to emigrate and travelled from one place to another, facing the harsh environment of shipboard life for weeks on end. Some travelled through the wilderness of early America or Canada, seeking a new home and a better future. For children born along the way, odds were against their survival.

Child Labour

In the days of our ancestors, it was not uncommon for young children to be put to work at an early age, with some working in coal mines or the industrial factories of the time. Accidents were frequent and sometimes fatal. Profit, not safety, was paramount in the employers mind.

Research and Write

Research the living conditions of your ancestors family and write about their lost children. How many did they lose? What did they die from? Would they have survived if they had been born today?

Child's Grave

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  1. I was working on 4 generations of my Bryner family (Switzerland, early to mid 19th century) and noticed that over 75% of the children died within the first 4 years of their short lives. One of my goals is to search the history of the area and see if there is an explanation for so many deaths in this family.

  2. Thank you for the post, Barbara. I find it very enlightening to compare relatives. For instance, by great-great grandfather was one of four brothers. The oldest brother, John, and his wife, Hannah, only seem to have lost one child. My great-great grandparents also lost one at just a few weeks old. But one brother and his wife, Michael and Mary, had at least seven children and I only find 3 surviving to adulthood, and none of those three had any children. I can’t help but wonder was it hard for Mary to look at her sister-in-law with all those living children, when she had buried so many? And did Hannah feel pangs of guilt when she saw her sister-in-law suffer the loss of yet another child?
    Keep up the good work!


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