To swaddle or not to swaddle: when the mercury plunges in Moscow, it's a hot topic

With the temperature here skidding toward 20 below zero, even Russian skeptics are convinced that winter is indisputably upon the land. It's the swaddling season.

Pink-cheeked toddlers take on the appearance of onions, with layers of hoods, scarves, and sweaters. And the limbs of little Alyoshas or Tatyanas are ofttimes layered almost to the point of immobility.

But some experts are questioning this time-honored Russian tradition.

They are, of course, roundly denounced by many of the ``babushkas'' (grandmothers) who frequently oversee those beswathed children.

``You're harming that child,'' snaps one babushka to a mother, who had only put -- gasp -- three layers on her offspring before taking him for a walk.

But then, the experts are also questioning the babushkas these days.

They're wondering why babushkas, upon reaching the age of wisdom, are increasingly unwilling to take on their appointed role of omnipresent babysitter, sometimes cook, and general factotum.

If, after all, you can't confidently swaddle a child or rely on a babushka, then what -- or whom -- can you trust?

Perhaps Prof. Ilya Arshavsky, himself no spring chicken at age 82. He told the newspaper Soviet Culture not long ago that it can even be harmful to swaddle an infant.

``The secret of healthy growth of babies,'' he says, ``lies in motion.''

Infants need to explore, to reach out and react with their environment, he says.

``You know what is most uncomfortable for a child?'' he asks. ``Comfort. . . A child must move and satisfy his curiosity.''

It is ``absolutely intolerable,'' he thunders, that children are bundled up so tightly that all they can move are their eyebrows.

He lamented that he's been preaching the antiswaddling gospel since the 1950s, but that -- alas -- no one has listened.

Now he can take heart.

Boris Nikitin is listening. He recently published a series of articles in the newspaper Soviet Russia calling for an end to mollycoddling of Russian children.

``Overswaddling of babies has become such a widespread phenomenon that it is now considered the norm by everyone.''

Mr. Nikitin, too, claims to speak from experience; he has seven children, and was a first-time father at the sagacious age of 43.

Admittedly, he says, neighbors and relations used to rail at him for experimenting on his offspring. He let them crawl about the house wearing only diapers, and sent them outside barefoot in summer. And on frosty nights, they slept under the stars in a sleeping bag.

They all grew up healthy, he says, whereas by the age of two months most Russian children have ``been reduced to a deplorable state'' in which ``everything becomes dangerous,'' even a waft of fresh air.

What about the days, he asks, when hearty Russians plunged naked from torrid steam baths into iced-over water?

``Why don't we return to this tried and trusted method of staying healthy?'' he concludes.

Perish the thought, said one wizened babushka encountered in Moscow's Red Army Park, who readily delivered an impromptu lecture on the finer points of winter dressing.

Layers, she said. The more the better. And blankets when children are pulled on a sled. One on top, and one below. The cold comes up from the ground, you know.

Is all this really necessary?

``I know this is correct,'' she says. ``I know.''

End of discussion.

But one had better listen well, because babushkas themselves are becoming harder to find -- or so the experts say.

One writer in Soviet Russia claimed they are defitsit -- in short supply, like many coveted items here.

Sociologists are ``sounding the alarm,'' says the newspaper. One out of every 10 young couples limits the size of its family because no babushka is around to watch the kids. Only one in five babushkas is willing to quit work in order to take care of a grandchild. Two-thirds of babushkas keep working after they're eligible for pensions. Half in Moscow are engaged in ``social activities'' and ``can't be found at home.''

Other research suggests that babushkas, perhaps troubled by conscience, are giving cash payments to their children in lieu of services.

But what kind of generosity is that, the author asks?

It's cheaper to give money, the article continues, but the more valuable gift is the babushka herself -- even if she has to watch over grandchildren at the cost of ``her peace and quiet, her health, and her nerves.''

Nevertheless, the article concludes, ``we risk losing one of our most splendid social traditions'' with the changing role of the babushka.

But then, they say that swaddling is a tradition that shouldn't be lost either.

And so the legions of babushkas take to the parks, at the cost of peace and quiet, to watch over children wrapped too tightly for their own good.

Or so the experts say.

But on a Russian winter day, when the temperatures skid down to nearly 20 below, where are the experts?

Surely not outside watching the children.

Thus can a bubushka, on a frosty day in the park, hold forth without fear of some expert contradicting her.

``I know,'' she says, her voice cutting the chill air. ``I know.''

And who can say she doesn't?

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