Friday, 26 June 2015

A Little History of Breastfeeding

*** A previous, unfinished, version of this post may have accidentally appeared in your readers a few days back, I apologise, I fail at technology. ***

So, breastfeeding. 


I come from a culture where breastfeeding is neither taboo nor a miracle panacea. France is not doing well at all, in terms of how many mothers breastfeed and for how long, but, on the upside, no-one cares if you breastfeed in public. And no-one cares if you bottle-feed either.

If the French were asked their opinion on the issue, I'm pretty sure the answer would be one of our legendary shrugs.

But since moving to England, I've discovered it can be a highly sensitive topic, with some women being shamed whilst doing it, and others being made to feel worthless for not doing it.

So, to offer my insights on the issue (because the world needs all my insights), I've decided to do what I always do: I've looked at the history of it.

Here is what I found history tells us about breastfeeding.

1. It is hard. Very hard.

Do you know what all the studies I read about a great variety of cultures and times have in common?

Wet nursing.

See? Everybody did it.

For centuries, across cultures, as soon as a woman could afford it, she would pay someone to do it for her. And if you think about it, you'll realise you already knew it. Think of Shakespeare's Juliet and her nurse. Why do you think she is called her "nurse"? Think of fairy tales. Think of Roman myths (Galatea springs to mind).

And it wasn't a fad.

It lasted into the twentieth century.

Thomas Phaire has a lot to say about how to pick your wet-nurse in his Boke of Chyldren (1545) - basically, she needs to have recently given birth, to be sober and her milk not to taste salty. 

All is explained about Edward VII. It was the nurse's fault.

You find the same advice in William Cadogan two centuries later (except now she also needs to be clean and healthy, Phaire didn't care about that).

In France, when the Rousseau-worshiping revolutionaries took power, they tried very hard to make breastfeeding appealing to more women than just the poor (they had festivals of public breastfeeding and awards for good feeder-mothers, it's all quite amusing), because breastfeeding was so widely considered a chore to avoid if at all possible.

Ta-da-da, I am a Rousseausit mother, living in bliss and harmony and I dress my child in restraining togas.

Of course I am not saying wet-nursing is a great plan for our lives. There really is such a thing as mother-infant bonding. And of course, (you all know this) HIS mother's milk is the best for a child, not just any random human mother.
The moral implications of the practice were also pretty dreadful. Unless the nurse was allowed to keep her infant with her - which stopped being the norm around the eighteenth century -, that poor baby was abandoned to a baby-farm. Which was every bit as horrible as it sounds (mostly, they would "dry-nurse" the babies, because too many babies, not enough milk, so they would just gradually starve them to death according to the pecking order).

All the fun.

In fact wet-nursing mostly disappeared because women were no longer made that desperate in vast numbers.

All I am saying is that, had you been born a couple of centuries ago, no-one would have tried to sell you breastfeeding as this amazing experience of bonding and butterflies, and anybody falling short of this would not have been branded a failed mother and woman.

It is hard. For many different reasons. They may be cultural; they may biological; they may be economical. It is hard at the beginning, it can be hard throughout for some women (and not because of selfishness), and it is incredibly hard to do it at work.

For example, in the school I work at, every door opens with the same key. So you can keep students out whilst you express, but not other teachers. I wasn't too keen on putting a giant "Expressing in progress - keep out!" sign on the door, so I lost many hours, in the toilet, pumping. I managed to keep it up until Jude was nearly 10 months, because I only worked half days, but even then, I gradually reduced his feeds and just gave in after a while.

Because my sanity is important too.

It was quite the done thing to ship the baby away with his nurse as well. Countryside air, so much better.

Has breastfeeding lots of advantages? Absolutely! Is it the best nutrition for your child? Absolutely! Is it a walk in the park because instinct and whatever magic kicks in? Nope.

Like all truly good things, it has a bit (or a lot, if you're unlucky) of hardship built into it.

I think that if we were a bit clearer about the fact that breastfeeding IS hard, especially in the workplace, more mothers would be ready for this fact, and maybe, just maybe, not give up as quickly. I may be wrong, but that is what I think.

2. Infant formula was actually good news

I think another myth about breastfeeding in the olden days is that everybody did it, and for as long as possible. They knew breast was best, and Big Pharma wasn't sneakily trying to buy their souls with formula.

Of course there is an element of truth in that, if you were a poor woman, you would indeed WANT to breastfeed for as long as you could. And formula companies are pretty horrible these days. But even then, some women just couldn't do it. Even then, supply wasn't always perfect. Even then, sometimes, women had to find other solutions. Because we are not created equal.

I think this is a judging look because the other one is smoking. Definitely.

In fact, it was even more common then than now, because many poor women would be chronically malnourished It sort of came with the territory. And poor diets meant poor supplies, and early weaning (I found a fascinating study on what archaeology can reveal through the observation of teeth in skeletons, for the geeks among you).

So, what were your options if you could not feed your child? 

If you were lucky, you had a sister, relative or friend who could help (historians call it "cross-nursing"). If not, your options were pretty poor. You could introduce solids and hope for the best. Try cow's milk and hope for the best. Abandon your child to an institution who could afford a wet nurse, and hope for the best.

In the nineteenth century, working mothers in factory towns also struggled with finding ways to keep their babies with them so they could breastfeed (they found solutions more often than not, despite what Victorian cant liked to think). 
There were "infant formulae" back then, but they were often indifferently advertised for "infants, invalids or the elderly" and were absolutely terrible.

So, when reliable infant formula was created, it was actually great news for all these women who before that had had to accept a huge amount of chance in the feeding of their babies, because biology or the economic forces were against them.

The same applies to the now-much-maligned (although I am quite a fan) "medicalisation" of childbirth. It saved many lives.

Of course, then the success of these solutions became a fashion, scientists just decided they knew better, and it went all the way to advocating formula over breast milk (although rarely explicitly) and horrible hospital stays our grandmothers can tell us all about, with rigid schedules to follow and tiny infants taken from their mothers for hours on end.

"I love being weighed before and after each feed, it's so much fun!"

The fifties showed the limits of the scientific approach.

Note the bunny rabbit for obligatory whimsy.

But the scientific approach had previously done a lot of good. That's why mothers listened. People of the past weren't stupid.

Yes, even Liz Taylor wasn't stupid.

So, if you find yourself having to use formula despite your best efforts, you have my permission to feel good, because many women have faced the same situation for centuries before you, and at least you won't risk poisoning your child. You will actually be providing your child with much better chances of survival than a few decades ago. Or even than in the wonderland of our imagination, where all women breastfed to the applause of approving "Societies", "back in the days".

3. Breast milk IS better for your child

Wet-nursing tells us something more than just how hard breastfeeding can be. It also reminds us that the best thing for human babies, is human milk. Although, really, it's better from their mothers.

I don't think this is breaking news to anyone.

The archaeological study of skeletons I mentioned before shows very convincingly that when women could breastfeed for a long time, babies were healthier (and taller, interestingly). In times where the paucity of resources affected the milk-supply of mothers, infants did worse.

And it is also a scientific fact that breast milk is the best milk.


Any other claim you should take with a pinch of salt.

I don't have much patience with all the studies about the benefits of breastfeeding on subsequent risk of childhood obesity, IQ points and academic success, they cannot prove their claims. All they can say is that breast milk MAY be beneficial, along with plenty of other factors, such as socio-economic status and education level of the parents (And I don't think anyone is under any illusion that this is transmitted through milk. It's not the nineteenth century anymore.)

It's a bit like trying to get more students to study music because it will help with their maths skills. Yes, perhaps (pinch of salt), but that is not the POINT of music.

The point of breastfeeding is to feed your baby, and it's excellent at THAT.

Even the most strident advocate of breastfeeding doesn't think that by having done that, she set up her child for life. No-one thinks "breast milk did the trick, job done".

So, if you can breastfeed your baby, s/he will be healthier, stronger (and possible taller ;-) ) than if you don't. Your baby will have the best food possible as an infant if you breastfeed. But everything else will still be up in the air, and will depend on the little person his/herself for the most part.

Here you go.

That's what history tells us.

And also that babies can be quite resilient. Poor lambs.


If you are in a geeky or suspicious frame of mind, here are the articles I used to prepare this post:

Ethics and Ideology in Breastfeeding Advocacy CampaignsRebecca Kukla, Hypatia, Vol. 21, No. 1, Maternal Bodies (Winter, 2006), pp. 157-180), Accessed: 18-06-2015 16:34 UTC

Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archaeological FindingsIrene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-ZuannaPopulation and Development Review, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 367-389,,Accessed: 18-06-2015 16:44 UTC

Fertility in France and New France: The Distinguishing Characteristics of Canadian Behavior in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth CenturiesYves LandrySocial Science History, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Winter, 1993), pp. 577-592,, Accessed: 18-06-2015 16:45 UTC

Breasts for Hire and Shared Breastfeeding: Wet Nursing and Cross Feeding in Australia, 1900-2000, Virginia ThorleyHealth and History, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2008), pp. 88-109,,Accessed: 18-06-2015 20:35 UTC

Working-Class Mothers and Infant Mortality in England, 1895-1914Carol DyhouseJournal of Social History, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 248-267,, Accessed: 18-06-2015 20:36 UTC

Reconstructing Motherhood: The La Leche League in Postwar AmericaLynn Y. WeinerThe Journal of American History, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Mar., 1994), pp. 1357-1381,, Accessed: 18-06-2015 20:40 UTC

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