Breastfeeding throughout History: Some Interesting Facts

Breastfeeding throughout History


From the beginning of human history society has had an interest to make a stand on breastfeeding. And besides the fact that mother’s milk is healthy and was considered to be a cure, you could be surprised that breastfeeding is marked by shifting fads throughout times past and present.

“As a cure for deafness, Sicilians drank a milk of a woman who had born a first son. Mother’s milk was used as an abortifacient in sixteen-century German. … Mother’s milk was also considered regenerative: legend held that the sixteen-century priest Bartolome de Las Casas, defender of Native Americans against the horror of Spanish conquest, was nursed back to life by a native woman.” Londa L. Schiebinger writes in her book “Gender in the Making of Modern Science”.

In the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires, women usually nourished their offspring. Yet, the upper class started perceiving this as too common for them and adopted the fashion of using the wet nurses instead. A wet nurse is a woman who breast feeds and cares for another’s child and at start they were used in situations when mother, for some reason, could not nurse her own child. But over the time, the practice of having a wet-nurse was spread at that level that wet-nursing become a proud, and paid, profession. “Greek nurses were preferred, and the Romans believed that a baby who had a Greek nutrix could imbibe the language and grow up speaking Greek as fluently as Latin.” – Wikipedia informs.

The wet nursing fad maintained for centuries and within different societies. Commonly it was linked to nobility, especially in Western Europe. The practice was so widespread among well doing families that, for example, by the 1780s, up to 90 percent of children born in Paris and Lyon were wet-nursed. That was the time when the shift came by virtue of emerging natural sciences as well as due to the European governmental worry regarding the high mortality rates among newborns for which the wet nurses were considered responsible. Theirs’ diet and health status were at question. Medical experts, the legal system, and popular literature were promoting maternal breastfeeding and wet-nursing was proclaimed to be violation of the laws of nature. But, there are examples of political misuse upon this emerging attitude. During the French Revolution breastfeeding became nature’s sign that woman’s place is at home, which for some was the base for denying woman’s’ political rights. Until the early 20th centuries the history of United States records wet-nursing as a common practice, and an interesting fact is that breastfeeding was also used with elder and ill people who had problems with nutrition.

The trend of wet-nursing gradually waned in developed countries throughout the last century, and during the post–World War II baby boom was replaced by the trend of bottle feeding, thanks to the extensive marketing and availability of infant formula. Bottle feeding becomes a new status symbol, particularly in the less developed countries were only rich families could afford formula milk.

And what about our century? Today the man and women of science are unfolding many interesting facts about the mother’s milk and breastfeeding is being populated throughout the world. Are they going to initiate a new historical shift and is the new trend going to be characterized as a status symbol by some of its aspect?

By: Milica Zujko

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