Learning about the History of Breastfeeding

August 17, 2016 — Leave a comment

August is National Breastfeeding Month in the US.  Breastfeeding is one of the hot triggers in the so-called Mommy Wars, and even in the mainstream news with women across the country banned from feeding their infants in certain public places.  The differences in opinions, as well as such strong opinions from every viewpoint and angle, got me to thinking about how we have viewed breastfeeding as a society over time.  The history is very interesting and eye-opening.

A Necessity for Infant Survival

Science and common sense will tell you that humanity and breastfeeding have gone hand in hand throughout time and was once a necessity for infant survival, but as any modern lactation consult can attest to, breastfeeding is not without its challenges.  This is not a new fact that has developed as we developed, but one that has always been part of the process and experience.  So, what did our ancestors do to combat difficulties in breastfeeding?  Some evidence suggests that various natural remedies were used to stimulate lactation, but the easiest and most common solution was to hire a wet nurse.

Wet Nurses

A wet nurse is a woman who cares for and breastfeeds another woman’s child.  The practice developed as a solution to lactation problems or to feed infants whose mothers had died.  Over time, many women in the upper classes of society began to see breastfeeding as unfashionable and an inconvenience.  This lead to the rise in wet nursing as a respectable occupation, especially for poorer women.  Roman citizens even preferred Greek wet nurses, as they that babies fed by Greek nurses would have an easier time learning Greek, as well as Latin.  For centuries, wet nursing was a well maintained practice, most especially in Western Europe and the practice was even used in the American colonies and the early years of the United States.

Shift in Thinking

Around the time of the American and French Revolutions, some began to worry that wet nursing was unnatural and led to high mortality rates among newborns.  Physicians, scientists, those in the legal system and even popular writers began to encourage mothers to nurse their own children.  The romanticized viewpoint became one of mothering by getting back to nature.  This, however, did lead to the idea that a woman’s place was at home, and these early new governments were set up with women having little to no political rights.  Breastfeeding or wet nursing maintained as the way to feed infants, however, until the rise of infant formula and bottle feeding.

Bottles and Formula

In 19th Century America, mothers started feeding babies cow’s milk leading to a decline in breastfeeding.  Cow’s milk, which was nutritionally inferior to breast milk, oftentimes lead to infant death.  Scientists began to analyze human milk, and to create and improve upon nonhuman milk sources, so that they were more in line with human breast milk.  In 1865, a chemist named Justus von Liebig patented the first infant formula that was made of cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour and potassium bicarbonate.  This, along with the development of an infant feeding bottle, lead to a further decline in breastfeeding, although not completely as the new formula was somewhat expensive.  By the 1950s, however, new advances in formula making and government regulation, lead to breastfeeding being seen as unsanitary and almost taboo.

Women in the Job Market and Further Decline

By the 1970s, more and more women began to enter the job market leading to an even further decline in breastfeeding, as it is now difficult and inconvenient for women returning to work after having babies.  Infants were typically only fed formula until they reached four to six months old and then switched to cow’s milk.  Concerned about the lack of proper infant nutrition, the World Health Organization offered a little pushback suggesting that the Western fashion of formula feeding is being diffused to the rest of the world.

Government Concern and Regulation Lead to Increases in Breastfeeding in 1980s and Beyond

Taking note of the severe decline and concern over infant nutrition, the US government releases numerous reports advocating for breastfeeding and its advantages.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established the first ever national health objective for breastfeeding establishing a goal to increase breastfeeding to 75% by 1990.  In 1980, the Infant Formula Act, which regulated infant formula to ensure the safety and nutrition, is signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.  In addition to increased health and safety regulations by the government, the increases in Internet usage and other technologies during the Information Age, allows the general population to easily access information about breastfeeding and many other subjects.  As a result, breastfeeding rates rose throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Affordable Care Act

One stumbling block women still faced in this new century was returning to work after having a baby.  Breast pumps are affective in pumping milk for caretakers to feeding infants when their mothers can’t, but they can be very costly.  On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act.  One element of this new healthcare act was that insurance companies were mandated to cover breast pumps for lactating women.

Thankfully in today’s world, breastfeeding has been made to be easier for mothers and formula feeding has been made to be healthier and more nutritious for babies than in the past.  BOTH have become good options for families.  Whichever option results in a healthy and fed baby and a stress-free experience for both mom and baby is the right option to choose.  But for mamas choosing to breastfeed, be sure to refer to these helpful tips to help you get started on the right foot https://blog.rupreggers.com/2015/08/13/7-breastfeeding-tips-for-national-breastfeeding-month/ .


Beginning of Human History – Breastfeeding necessary to infant survival.  Wet nurses employed to feed infants of women who have died or cannot breastfeed.

BC Era to 1700s – Wet nurses employed to feed the children of upper class society.  Becomes a respectable profession.

1700s – Shift in thinking romanticizes breastfeeding leading some mothers to nurse their own.

1800s – Mothers begin to feed infants cow’s milk as an alternative to breastfeeding.

1865 – First infant formula is patented.

1950s – Government regulation in formula leads to breastfeeding seen as unsanitary.

1970s – Women begin to enter job market further declining breastfeeding rates.

1980 – Infant Formula Act passed regulating safety and nutrition of formula.

1980s – Government push to increase breastfeeding.

2010 – Affordable Care Act signed into law requiring insurance companies to cover breast pumps.







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