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  • Writer's pictureYour EmmaWell Team

A Brief History of Baby Feeding

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

Ever since there have been babies, there have been conflicting views on how to feed them. Today, breastfeeding is generally recognized in our country as the gold standard for infant nutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and World Health Organization all wholeheartedly encourage breastfeeding. Its benefits for both mom and baby are scientifically proven, and its adoption in our culture is now widespread.

But breastfeeding hasn’t always been the prevailing baby feeding practice in the U.S. At times, it was socially sneered at and even medically discouraged. Beyond a checkered past, breastfeeding has always been a loaded topic that stirs up complicated emotions for mothers who don’t have the ability or desire to breastfeed. Let’s take a look at history to examine how breastfeeding has fared in American culture over the centuries and why it warrants a dedicated week – World Breastfeeding Week – annually from August 1st to 7th.

18th Century

As millions of immigrants came to America, they left behind their extended families who would have typically shared child-rearing responsibilities and inter-generational breastfeeding wisdom. In England, the homeland of most colonial immigrants, women belonging to the upper classes employed wet nurses to breastfeed their children. Wet nurses were far more scarce but highly sought-after in colonial America. Typically temporary arrangements, wet nurses were both formally employed (e.g. a well-off family would hire a woman who was nursing her own infant or whose infant had died) and casually negotiated (e.g. a volunteer nursing neighbor would take in a newborn until the mother was able to breastfeed).

Up until the 18th century, physicians subscribed to the humoral theory of medicine, which held that the human body consists of four humors: blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm. Breast milk was believed to be menstrual blood that changed color in the womb and flowed into the breasts after birth. At this time, doctors supported breastfeeding based on the scientific evidence that maternal milk produced the highest probability of infant survival. Colostrum, however, was believed to be toxic and was commonly rejected as a baby’s first food. Therefore, the majority of newborns were either nursed by mothers of older infants or given alternative sources of nourishment until their mother’s mature milk came in.

Due to the general scarcity of women available to serve as wet nurses in colonial America and legal prohibitions against sexual relations with nursing women, mothers frequently flouted their doctors’ advice and hand-fed their babies prepared foods as a substitute for breast milk. The most common foods were a mixture of flour or breadcrumbs cooked in water or milk from cows or goats. Really desperate times called for desperate measures, and it was not unheard of for human babies to suckle directly from animals’ teats. This feeding method was a safer alternative to other food substitutes, which ran a high risk of contamination and infant mortality. All in all, initial efforts to provide alternative animal milk sources for baby feeding resulted in a high risk of disease or death, often from infection, dehydration, and malnutrition.

19th Century

A stark change from the colonial era, when mothers typically breastfed at least through their babies’ second summer, many mothers began to supplement their own breast milk with cow’s milk shortly after birth and to wean their babies from the breast before the age of three months. Throughout the 1800s, lower-class women flocked to the factories that cropped up during the Industrial Revolution, and middle-class women became more active in social organizations. Breastfeeding was considered a private affair, so these women sought out breast milk substitutes to feed their babies while they were outside the home. In large part due to these social forces drawing mothers away from their babies during the day, many mothers didn’t breastfeed longer than a few weeks or months.

As many infants were left with caregivers (e.g. servants of upper class mothers, older daughters of working class mothers) who could not nurse them, their diets consisted mostly of homemade alternatives. Some mothers tried concocting their own feeding mixtures at home, using a peculiar combination of liquids such as cow’s milk, melted butter, or meat-based broth, combined with flour or soaked bread. Babies were often hand-fed spoiled cow’s milk with unsanitary pap boats or makeshift bottles that were hard to clean. Babies who were hand-fed tended to die at alarming rates. In some cities, one-third of children died before the age of five.