Breastfeeding through the ages

It was wonderful to find this article through someone’s recommendations through the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s FB pages (an association I’m now a member of… and really enjoy their gatherings).

It’s fascinating and sociologically interesting how breastfeeding has changed through the ages.

Until close to Modernity there was no reliable substitute for breastmilk. From what I’ve been reading it seems that prehistorical humans breastfed their babies exclusively til 6 months and then coupled with pre-chewed food til about 2 years of age. Not incidentally current breastfeeding recommendations are the same: exclusively til 6 months, with food on the side til 2 years. Also important that pre-chewing transfers bacteria and aids in establishing a good microbial flora in children (I do do some of this myself). I suspect prehistoric women shared breastfeeding, cross-feeding each other’s babies as necessitated by circumstances.

Later some substitutes were found: the milk of other animals, almond milk etc. wet nurses were also used for at least hundreds of years: privileged families hiring or paying other lactating women to breastfeed their babies instead of them. Perhaps this was also an arrangement when someone couldn’t breastfeed or a mother died during birth.

Then came early 20th century and both purée-led weaning (my deliberately snarky misnomer) and commercial formulas. This century eventually also brought a new cultural trend: preferring the ‘scientifically formulated’ cow milk based formula to breastfeeding. The former being considered ‘civilized’ and more nutritionally sound, which is now difficult to believe knowing so much about the special benefits and characteristics of human breastmilk.

The latter, breastfeeding, became considered ‘animalistic’, ‘uncivilized’ and an unnecessary burden on mothers.

Today the trend has turned back again: generally speaking breastfeeding is now promoted by health authorities as the healthier option for both mother and baby. Formula is not only considered inferior but in some circles it is frowned upon and the formula feeding mother is considered negligent, lazy or morally reprehensible which puts a lot of pressure on mothers to breastfeed, even when there are many strong hurdles or counterindications from medications for the mother (that would pass into her milk and make baby sick) to illness or inability to breastfeed, not to mention individual choice to not to or to giving up before 6 months or 2 years.

I do realise the positive image of breastfeeding and gentle push to continue end up benefitting many babies, even though very few workplace arrangements or maternity leave schemes allow for the reasonable continuation of such a practice beyond a few months.

So in such a historical period and with such a knowledge of precious anti-breastfeeding norms it is amazing to find that in the mid 1800s many American women got themselves photographed nursing their babies. In fact, it seems this was a temporary fashion trend even though early photographs were achieved via the difficult process of sitting motionless for ten minutes, a difficult feat with a small baby!

Breastfeeding women’s photos in Victorian-era America

The more these images spread online the more breastfeeding advocates and happily breastfeeding mothers will enjoy looking back in time and feeling a connection with these women and their pride in giving their babies precious milk from their bodies. I’m slightly in awe (mixed with confusion) of how women could breastfeed in corsets!!!



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