History of Breastfeeding

Let's take a look at the interesting history of breastfeeding and how it has evolved through the ages.

For understanding the current habits of breastfeeding it is important to know the practices in earlier days. Breastfeeding is the most commonly practised method of nursing a new born for any mammals’ species. It was such a habituated thing that even the archaic medicine practitioners, who recorded the most primitive of the techniques, have not written much about it.

history of breastfeeding

history of breastfeeding

Roman scientific literature has mentioned about breastfeeding to some extent. It includes the accounts of great medicine practitioners like Hippocrates, Soranus and Galen.

Similar views were held by Rhazes, Avicenna and Averroes – the Arabian Schools and ahead from the 14th till the early 17th century by medical essayist such as Bagellardus, Metlinger, Roesslin, Muffet, Phayer and de Vallambert and are referred even in the current literature.

The popularity of these beliefs traversed the World from Latin America to Asia and Middle East. The major success of these beliefs was in countries of Europe due to the development of the press and the literature being published in the dialect lingos. The reason that there is not much difference in the feeding pattern over the entire globe is possibly reflected in these writings.

​Breastfeeding Age

It is a very diverse belief among the different civilisations that existed about the age the child was breast fed. Wickes in one of his medicinal thesis had mentioned about Plotis dodging between his tutor and nurse to suckle milk when he was eight years old. The writer despite existing in an ancient era remarked about the inhabitants to be at highest level of civilisations and not any primitive crude practitioners. Nevertheless he stated that their evolution was on a different scale and pace from our own.

He has mentioned references from Ploss and Bartels’ records that generally the duration of breast feeding was from 3 – 4 years after birth to a few months after delivering in native people. Other clans had different practices like the Hawaiians breast fed toddlers up to five year olds and the Eskimos did it for children up to seven years of age. The maximum duration was about fifteen years seen in King William’s kingdom.

Wickes also discovered writings mentioning that the Germans fed the neonate for only the first twelve months in the late 13th century.

Another writer Ford wrote the account of breast feeding habits of 45 different clans, about 15 primitive tribes did it for 3 years and longer, 16 of them did it for 2 years, 13 of them did it for one and a half year, and only one of them did it solely for 6 months.

Mercularis another medicine philosopher recorded that Italian mothers gave pap as a substitute after the baby was 12 weeks old and breastfeeding continued at most till 52 weeks after birth. By the 19th century breastfeeding for longer durations was considered harmful for the child.

Lancet in the early 19th century mentioned about a child who was diagnosed with epilepsy and the possible cause was considered that the child was breast fed for more than three years. In the 20th century Tyrol inhabitants considered it morally wrong to breast feed the child for longer durations.

The earlier records were basically recommendations about breast feeding based on the notion that the recipient was aware of the history of it.

​Problems In Lactation Administration

In the earlier days the first milk ‘colostrum’ discharged from a nursing mother’s breasts was considered as waste. Honey and skimmed butter were used to evacuate the meconium. Delaying of Breast feeding was till first five days from birth is mentioned in the Indian Brahminical records of 300 BC.

The Old Testament states that curd and honey was given to nourish a neonate until he could differentiate between good and evil. The colostrum discarding was well believed in the 1600s from the Greek and Roman to the English and European data.

Nevertheless well back in 1699 Ettmuller and Smith advised that colostrums must be fed. Galactagogues and a variety of other supplements were taken to increase milk production by the primitive man in 1550 BC, however it was not required.

Jellife and jellife researched about the causes of let down failures mainly as the superstitions and dread of being cursed due to disobeying a taboo of sexual category.

On the other hand writers like Rhazes talked about the harms of feeding more than the set bar. So many others following this belief started advocating that mothers should habituate the child for short duration and for fewer times a day. Amongst the first few books about breast feeding the one written by Guillemeau advised the baby to be trained for taking limited doses.

Later Pernell wrote a thesis in 1653 stating “Let not the child suck so often, nor so long.” Pechey’s “General Treatise of the Diseases of Infants and Children” in 1697 mentioned the detrimental effects of overfeeding. “Practice of Physic” by Ettmuller’s 1699 English translation also mentions “nothing is more apt to disorder the child than suckling it too often”.

Feeding four times a day was advised by Cdogan. Later Smith in the 18th century said that the baby till the first 4-5 weeks should be fed after regular intervals 4 times a day as suckling increases the milk production. There have been various recommendations about the duration, frequency and other guidelines of breast feeding. Wickes also quoted a poem talking about that breast feeding must be done as and whenever the child demands, as the call of Nature.

​Substitutes for Breast feeding

There have been old accounts and scriptures showing women using artificial means to feed the child. An old painting found in the excavated ruins of King Sardanopolis of Ninevah – 888 BC depicts a mother with something resembling a milk feeding bottle in one hand and a spoon kind of structure in another. Also feeding vessels have been recovered from civilisations’ remains of 2000 BC.

Feeders made of clay were discovered from graves with infants all over Rome in the 99- 400 AD. Wickes hypothesizes that there is no record of ancient writings about substitute feeding habits as there was no proper advices to be given about the nature and composition of the feed. Soranus of Epiphises also abhorred the people who started giving artificial feeds to babies at a very early age. There are various accounts mentioning that babies who were given substitute feeds died to early. Sir Hans Sloan mentioned the data about mortality rates of breast fed babies being only 19% and for dry nursed was a huge percentage of 54%. A research held for over two years with 132 showed that only five survived when they were given an artificial mix of cider, pap, soup and cow’s milk. In the 16th century Governor of Vasa was granted the right to fine any mother who refused to wet nurse her baby.

Bottles became more appropriate once technology gained progress and it became possible to prepare milk powder, sterilisation and pasteurisation. Obstetricians brought to light at the first International Congress on Gouttes de Lait held at Paris 1903, that paediatricians advocated artificial feeding seeking the commercialisation of the subject.

​Wet Nursing

By the end of the 19th century as the artificial methods gained progress the practice of breast feeding by a nurse became obsolete. Nevertheless many royal families still used theses nurses for their infants. It was a common practice in the Pharonic houses in early Egyptian civilisation. Literature has it how a wet nurse was obtained after careful examination of her body and other attributes of the milk. Milk’s color, density, taste, texture etc all were considered to be accounted as it was a popular belief that through the milk behaviour traits passed to the infant. Especially the royal class was very particular about the royal blue blood maintaining its integrity.

In Europe the supply of wet nurses became a profession. It was done by four separate agencies. Other ethical concerns arose with time like the deprivation of the rightful child of the nurse due to being a wet nurse for others. Hence a law was passed in 1762 that no woman with child under 9 months would be allowed to nurse. All the 18 children of Elizabeth Clinton were nursed by wet nurses. The wet nurses did not consider it their duty to keep them alive in spite of being the ones who nourished them and all of the children died except one.

Elizabeth’s daughter in law did not give her babies to wet nurses and herself breast fed them and hence they all survived due to care taken by her. This persuaded her to write about it urging other females to breast feed their own babies. She condemned misnomers like deformation of bodies, noisome for clothing and “interfered with gadding about”.

The first time a picture depicted the use of breast pump was in Italy 16th century, breast pumps help woman to shift their babies temporarily to another means of feeding. Breast milk collection began in Boston 20th century.

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Author: Marissa Claire

Hi, I am Marissa. I am a wife of a very supportive husband and mother 3 precious kids. Even though my life is not picture perfect, I have too many blessings to be counted. I am an ordinary mom who has been through some tough times.

I have tried to collate the best information available and write personal & real reviews for the benefits of parents who are confused with the plethora of breast pumps available. I have made an effort to steer clear of technical jargons and used layman language which is understood by people like us.


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