If you are a mother, it was hard to miss that World Breastfeeding Week was the first week of August. Memes of nursing babies, mothers proudly posting their nursing pictures, and stories of breastfeeding success were found all over Facebook pages and groups, Instagram, in blogs, and beyond. This designated week was a chance for mothers to celebrate their ability to provide nourishment for their child.
This week may have also stung a bit for those who did not have a breastfeeding journey to celebrate. It is nothing against the breastfeeding mothers, they have every right to celebrate their success because, although breastfeeding is the natural way of feeding your baby, it does not always come naturally to us. In fact, the majority of mothers need support, guidance, encouragement, and education in order to be successful with breastfeeding. Luckily there are classes, and lactation consultants, and support groups, and mothers and grandmothers, and friends who can provide just that. Actually, it is often the communal support that breastfeeding mothers receive that helps them meet their breastfeeding goals.
But what about those who could not breastfeed for one reason or another? Or those who simply chose not to breastfeed? A look at the history of breastfeeding and infant feeding actually shows that while breastfeeding has always been the preferred method of feeding a baby, substitutions have been used since as early as 2000 BC.
Examination of the history of infant feeding shows that three types of feeding have been present throughout human history. Wet nursing was the primary substitution for breastfeeding until the end of the 18th century, when artificial feeding became a feasible substitute for wet nursing. Wet nursing as a substitution due to “lactation failure” has been noted as early as 1550 BC in the earliest Egyptian medical encyclopedia. Around 950 BC we begin to see wet nursing as a choice being made by women of high social status and this trend continued through the height of the Roman empire, until the start of the Middle Ages, during which time breastmilk was viewed as having magical properties and the preference became that the natural mother nurse their baby. While the practice never went away it gained a resurgence during the Renaissance. It was common for aristocratic women to have a wet nurse because breastfeeding was seen as “unfashionable” as it prevented them from wearing socially acceptable clothing of the time. Additionally, it interfered with social activities and, a wet nurse was cheaper than hiring someone to keep house or help tend to their husband’s business.
During the Industrial Revolution wet nursing experienced another shift, this time focusing on the laboring, low-income families. Women joined the workforce to contribute financially to the family’s income making it impossible to breastfeed their babies. Children were often nursed by “destitute peasant women.” While wet nursing was an organized profession for a long time, with designated qualities and duties dating back as far as 1220 AD, the availability of animal milk combined with advancements in the feeding bottle brought the profession to an end by the start of the 19th century.
While wet nursing was the preferred method of infant feeding, clay feeding bottles date back to 2000 BC. Chemical analysis on these bottles have shown that animal milk was used as a substitute for breastmilk. Over the centuries many different devices were used including wood, ceramic, horn, pewter and silver. While cow’s milk was preferred, families used what was accessible, including goat, camel, sheep, pig, horse, or donkey. Unfortunately, cleanliness of these vessels was an issue and bacterial growth, combined with lack of sterilization and proper milk storage, led to the death of one third of artificially fed infants during the first year of life.
Important scientific advancements in the 19th century brought on the development of the first infant formulas. In 1810 the process of sealing sterilized foods in containers was developed and in 1865 the first infant formula was patented. Later advancements such as the ability to safely store milk and the acceptance of germ theory lead to cleanliness and food safety standards. Formula companies began advertising to medical professionals and the general public and quickly became known as a safe alternative to breastmilk, resulting in a rapid decline in breastfeeding until the 1970’s when a movement to promote breastfeeding began.
Efforts to promote breastfeeding continue today. In fact, many formula companies provide information on the benefits of breastfeeding and include some kind of language on their labeling that states that breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for baby. So, given the history of infant feeding, and the resurgence of breastfeeding, whose rate dropped from above 90% down to 42% in the 21st century, it is a mother’s success worth celebrating.
Celebrating the breastfeeding journey during World Breastfeeding Week, however, is not meant to bring shame or bad feelings upon those who could not, or choose not to, breastfeed. Society today seems to be in this war of the breastfeeders versus the non-breastfeeders. However, as we can see from our look at the history of infant feeding, the decision on whether to breastfeed or not dates back as far as 950 BC.
While there is no argument about whether breastmilk is best for baby, research has demonstrated it and formula companies recognize that it is, at the end of the day however, the relationship with your baby is what is most important. When you feed your baby are you attending to them? Are you allowing them to eat when they are hungry? Are you gazing into their eyes? Are you caressing their face? Are you holding them close and allowing them to have the contact they desire? Are you smiling at them and talking to them in a loving voice? These are the things that matter most. Just because you feed your baby expressed milk, donor milk, or formula does not mean the intimacy and love present in the breastfeeding relationship is lost. And that relationship, that loving, responsive, attuned relationship, that it something we can all celebrate.
Stevens, E., Patrick, T., Pickler, R. (2009). A History of Infant Feeding. Journal of Perinatal Education. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684040/
Schuman, A. (2003). A concise history of infant formula (twists and turns included). Contemporary Pediatrics. Retrieved from https://www.contemporarypediatrics.com/pediatrics/concise-history-infant-formula-twists-and-turns-included