Throughout Time - Throughout the World: Breastfeeding

Pablo Picasso, Maternity, 1905
Rixa has been doing a beautiful thing over at her blog with the two posts on Breastfeeding History, one concerning Mormon handcart pioneers and the other regarding an older LDS Meeting.

Titian, The Virgin and Child, 1565
She has inspired this post, in keeping with the Throughout Time, Throughout The World theme, to take a look at breastfeeding around the world and throughout time.

Han Dynasty Pottery

History and Culture

From the dawning of time, the amazing ability of a mother to birth, and then nourish, her child has been seen as magical, wrapped in mystery, beautiful, and blessed!
early cave painting of mother nursing
From the mythical figure of Philosophia-Sapientia, the personification of wisdom, who suckled philosophers at her breast and by this way they absorbed wisdom and moral virtue...
Mexican Statue
To the Bible drawing parallels between absolute love and devotion, care and comfort as being a woman nursing her child...

St. Theodore's Church, circa 1st Century A.D., Father Abdo Badwi
To the Egyptian goddess Isis, the symbol of motherhood and protection, nursing her son Horus.
Isis nursing Horus,
Breast has always been known to be best!

Terra Mater, Roman engraving
Throughout history, women have been given special time to establish nursing and child caring after birth (such as the lying in time), given special sanction and law to be able to nurse their child on demand in any setting (such as allowance to not make exodus' to birth cities for census), and have been encouraged to nurse.

In colonial times, it was normal to nurse a child into/through the toddler years. And, in Japan, it was not uncommon to nurse children until they were young children. In fact, it was desirable to nurse a child as long as they wanted - Chinese Emperors were sometimes nursed until they were 10-12 years of age.

Japanese Artwork

Add to this amazing stint of breastfeeding, that those who were enlisted to nurse the Chinese Emperor were put through rigorous examinations, and the tools for those examinations were always fraught with symbols of power and majesty.

breast examination tool of ancient China
As many artists depicted breastfeeding throughout the ages on artwork, we can know two things about earlier beliefs regarding breastfeeding:
  1. It was commonplace, the norm, part of the every day
  2. It was seen, at the same time, as beautiful, important, revered
Greek sculpture circa 6th century BC, credit Mimmo Jodice
This combination of beliefs is seen in diety art as well as common art. Take the example of Philosophia-Sapienta, who nourished philosophers on her wisdom, which was passed from her breast milk. Breastmilk imparting wisdom, who would have thought?
African Statue
Likewise, it was seen as a maternal superpower, as seen through Isis nourishing Horus, the god of war and hunting. The direct implication of this is that the nourishing, protecting, maternal goddess created a strong, resilient, and empirical figure through her efforts.

aztec statue
How do we know it was commonplace at the same time, requiring little notice and seen as respectable and decent in public?

LDS Chapel painting by A.B. Wright circa 1920's
Leon Frederic
wooden wedding gift, Bihar India

Seagull Monument by Mahonri M Young, circa 1910
Wet Nurses and Formula
So, why the sudden move to formula you might ask? Well, like many a glorious empire, it didn't collapse overnight, but a corrupt progression led to the fall of Breastfeeding. Wet nursing and Formula has always been a prejudiced subject. It has always surrounded slavery, racism, or sexism. That's a bold statement, you say? Well, let me explain.

Historically, the earliest account of wet nursing is in the Bible. Again, the Bible repeatedly tells of the benefits and Hebrew/Jewish support of nursing. It is seen as a blessed and beautiful event (Luke 11:27, I Peter 2:2-3, Isaiah 49:14-16, Isaiah 66:10-13, I Thessalonians. 2:7-8, Genesis 49:25, I Samuel 1:21-23, and more).

So why is there wet nursing in the Bible? In Exodus 2:9 there is a story of when Pharaoh's daughter find's Moses in the reeds. If you don't know the story, let me tell you about it. Pharaoh saw his slaves, the Hebrew people, growing too great in number, so he mandated that all baby boys that are born to be killed immediately. Well, Moses was born and, after his mother kept him as long as possible, she found the best option was, rather than let him be killed, to send him away in a basket on the water, trusting God to lead him into the hands of someone who could care for him.

Back to Pharaoh's daughter. As she is not lactating, she tells little Miriam (Moses' sister, who was hiding in the reeds to watch over her brother) to go and find her someone suitable to nurse Moses. When Miriam returns, with Moses' own mother,
... Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give [thee] thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it. - Exodus 2:9
Jochebed nursing
Thus, the earliest wet nurse represents the resistance of the enslaved class to oppression and genocide. Likewise, later, in Lamentations, God is grieved when He finds His people weaning too early...
"Even the jackals draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones, but the daughter of my people has become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness { that desert their young}."... "The tongue of the nursing babe cleaves to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the young children beg for food, but no one gives it to them." - Lamentations 4:3-4
This was not always the historical case, though, as not nursing quickly became a tool of the upper class to set themselves apart from the rest of society.

Goddess of the Earth, India
From early Egyptian, Grecian, and Roman times, we can find that women began seeing nursing as a bane on their personal time and effort when it was permissible to consider it, i.e., when they were rich enough to find an alternative. A woman who was socially upper class, had 'more pressing responsibilities', and was wealthy enough to employ (or enslave) another woman to feed her child would usually have a wet nurse. In essence, she was too busy and important to do something so mundane.
baby at breast

In Medieval Europe, women were encouraged to breastfeed and very little wet nursing was done.
Yet, wet nursing was still reserved for Roman, Egyptian, and Grecian royalty. Sometime, though, between the 1300's and the 1500's, nursing, and most of parenting in general, went out of vogue. Some believe that the plague of the 1300's created such a scare in the public that they began emotionally detaching themselves from their children for fear that they wouldn't survive anyway.

Wet Nurse and Women, circa 16th century

Regardless, by the Renaissance, wet-nursing was in full employ of the upper class.  

More recently, American blacks pre-Civil War were forced to wet nurse each others children while the mothers went 'on shift'. Likewise, white women of America who were married to men owning slaves began forcing slaves to wet nurse their children. By influence from Europe, American women who were 'wealthy enough to own slaves' thought themselves 'wealthy enough to be too important to breastfeed'.

A little further ahead in history, and we see now-free blacks needing to wet nurse each others children, again, as women began looking for jobs to supplement their husband's income post-Civil War.
Jennifer James, Frenchwomen Breastfeeding
Even closer to modern day, and we see the social beliefs of the 1800's and early 1900's come into play. Socially, the upper class believed that coddling or becoming attached to a child would make them weak minded. To deter the maternal bond, many women hired wet nurses.
In Europe, during the late 1600's and throughout the 1800's, the government attempted to change this perspective as higher mortality rates in infants raised concern over the safety of wet nurse use.
WPA poster, circa 1938
 The biologist and physician Linnaeus thought that the lower class wet nurse ate too much fat, drank alcohol and had contagious (venereal) diseases; therefore producing lethal milk.

Death as a Wet Nurse, R Dagley, ca 1828
Campaigns against using wet nurses were launched and women were advised, and even sometimes forced by law to nurse their own children. Many could see the social impact on the emotional wellbeing of children as they became adults, a disinterest, and the subsequent social failings because of this.
"It is easy to see from experience how this natural affection, in which we invest so much authority, has superficial roots. Every day, in exchange for a small profit, we tear children from their mothers' arms and make them take ours instead; we make them abandon their offspring to some emaciated wet nurse, to whom we would never give our own child, or to some goat" -Michel de Montaigne, late 16th century
and again,
"From the 17th century, medical writers urged parents... to visit their children at nurse.... [R]egular parental visits and close supervision were the exception rather than the rule. ... In the late 16th century, the children of John Dee were visited by their parents only once every one or two months. Two centuries earlier Lapo Mazzei, a poor notary of Prato and father of 14 children, was certainly no exception to the rule when he wrote... of his weaned son: 'Your godson, whom I have only seen once before, has come back to me from his wet nurse....'"  - Historical Perspectives on Breastfeeding
Native American Wet Nurse, John Hodson, circa 1890
There was a reemergence of the belief that mother's milk was considered a miracle fluid - able to cure people and even impart wisdom (they were not far off, btw). The Works Progress Administration followed suite in the United States, seeing a fault in the social logic advocating wet nursing... but public opinion that nursing was a 'base', 'animalistic', or 'poor' thing to do still ran rampant in social beliefs and it was going to be a difficult climb out of this mindset. 
Inuit Mother
Jennifer James states:
"In my opinion, wet nursing is the primary contributor to the low breastfeeding rate among black women in America. When breastfeeding rates are as low as is currently evidenced among black women, babies and families alike suffer. Because breastfeeding produces so many health benefits to children and mothers, when breastfeeding is noticeably absent in such high numbers, black babies aren't as healthy as they could be. Today, this may not have been the case had black mothers been able to nurse their own children throughout American history instead of being forced to work the fields or be house slaves.
Slave and Child circa 1848
On the farther end of the spectrum, wet nursing was yet another factor that kept black women from bonding with their children both during slavery and afterward. Black women so often were nursing white children that their own children were not able to benefit from the healing properties of breast milk and the natural bond between mother and child. These reasons alone make wet nursing one of the worst institutions imposed upon black women."

It soon became almost necessary to use an alternative to nursing ones own child, though, when women began joining the workforce. It was no longer just a social standard of your economic upbringing, but now a question of livelihood.  Doula Ambitions continues the story:
wedgewood circa 1820's
Infant formula was invented by Henri Nestle in 1860, but it didn’t actually become popular until the 1940s. The main cause for this sudden increase in popularity was World War II.
Men in infant feeding class, circa 1940s
Consequently this was also about the same time that doctors began to advocate for women to stop breastfeeding their babies and to bottle feed instead. They told them that bottle feeding was a much safer, sanitary, convenient and scientific way to feed their infants.

"Before the war the vast majority of women were homemakers who stayed home with their children and left the jobs to the men. As the war continued, women were called to the workforce to support their country by doing the jobs that men who went overseas to fight had left behind. In fact, the number of women in the labor force increased 210% from 1940 to 1985. It was this sudden desire and ability for women to leave the housewife life behind that formula companies saw and capitalized on by starting huge advertisement and free sample campaigns to normalize bottle feeding and, of course, get rich in the process.
Kathryn Davis, age 60, is the daughter of a decorated WWII veteran. A self-proclaimed history buff, Kathryn has spent her entire life studying WWII and its effects on the population of the United States:
Pewter baby feeding bottle
"I think World War II was the biggest influence on the decline of breastfeeding. It was the first time in U.S. history that women could really enter the workforce. They needed them to build the planes, bombs, tanks, and munitions but if they were breastfeeding babies they couldn't do that on the scale needed. Formula and bottles became quite popular at that time because they needed to be able to leave their babies behind to help the war efforts. The baby boomer generation is really the first generation to have been bottle fed on the large scale. The attitude was that the more intelligent, educated, and sophisticated people bottlefed. If you saw someone breastfeeding you automatically assumed that they were an ignorant country bumpkin."
Corbis Milk 1887
It wasn't that breastfeeding was uncommon, it’s just that the bottle was more common. When my sister had her kids in the 60s they were automatically bottlefed and she was even given a shot to dry up her milk. By the time the 80s came around and I was having my children people were beginning to become more educated about breastfeeding. My doctor didn't influence me either way but basically told me that breastfeeding for the first month was good enough. Of course, I was given tons of formula samples and free bottles at every doctor visit."
My own grandmother recounts how many women were lead to believe something horrible after birth. Directly afterward, a woman's breasts were tweaked. If she gave out yellow milk (colostrum) that was considered unhealthy milk and she was encouraged to give her baby formula.

 Sometime during the 1960s and 70s, though, some women who were known as 'anti-establishment' began reclaiming the beauty, power, and love associated with feeding their own child from their own breast.

Breastfeeding began to grow in popularity in some circles, and science began to catch up with maternal instinct.

What We Know Now
Kurdi mother nursing, by Paul Schutzer, Israel
From earliest times, we knew that nursing created a bond, showed an increase in intelligence, and raised a strong and competent human adult. Now, science has caught up with our innate knowledge of these facts.
Yashoda brestfeeding Krishna

Breastfeeding is an option for every woman who gives birth, and even some women who have not recently given birth (i.e. adoptive parents). Breast milk is the best nutrition for a newborn/baby. 
Virgin of Humility Benedetto di Bindo Zoppo circa 1400-1405
Nearly all breastfeeding hurdles can be overcome by support, lactation consultation, special attention or apparatus'/treatments, perseverance, and encouragement.
Breastfeeding success can be inhibited by: premature introduction of a bottle or pacifier, formula supplementation or introduction, medications of mom or baby, prematurity, or recovery (from cesarean or other surgery). Avoiding these situations, if possible, can greatly increase your breastfeeding success.

Benefits of breastfeeding to baby include:

  • Less chance of obesity - Longer periods of breastfeeding greatly reduce the risk of being overweight in adulthood as well as reduces the risk of adolescent obesity.
    Lansdowne Church in Scotland by Alf Webster
  • Healthy teeth, eyes, and ears - Formula-fed babies tend to run a higher risk of jaw misalignment and are more likely to need orthodontic work as they get older. Breastfeeding improves the development of facial muscles and the shape of the palate. Breastfeeding reduces the incidence of ear infections and vision problems.
    African woman, by Peter Gasser
  • Overall Health - breastfed babies have a reduced risk of severe upper respiratory infections, wheezing, pneumonia and influenza. They have less risk of diarrhea, gastrointestinal infections and constipation. Formula feeding carries a four fold increase in risk for SIDS.
    Villa de Este
  • Intelligence/Coping - breastfed babies tend to score higher on IQ tests and cognition testing. Breastfed babies also tend to be more vertical in the corporate world later in life. A recent study indicates that breastfed children cope better with stress later in life. The bonding rather than the breast milk is a likely explanation.
    Terra Cotta from Babilonia circa 6000 BC
  • Later Life - Formula-fed babies have a raised risk of heart disease, juvenile/type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Recent research indicated that breastfeeding can postpone allergies and asthma. Breastfeeding may also play a role in preventing digestive diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, as well as childhood cancers including leukemia. Other studies indicate a reduce risk for both eczema, food allergy, and respiratory allergy--throughout childhood and adolescence.
Benefits to Mom:
  • Less Fatigue - women who nurse report being better rested, less stressed, and more content. This is because of a number of factors and include: no need to prepare formula/bottles, the ability to readily access nourishment for a child during nighttime feedings (which allows a woman to do this as second nature and not fully rouse), the hormone prolactin releases olfactorily, soothing a stressed mama and family members and promotes a feeling of overall well being.
  • Weight Loss - While nursing, you will burn an additional 500+ calories every day. So, unless you continue to "eat for two", the breastfeeding may help you loose weight. The 'spare tire' around a woman's waist is actually a 'milk store' a fatty deposit that nature gave women to sustain her milk production in hard times. Women who nurse tend to loose more of this spare tire, which would otherwise continue to be a 'problem area' throughout her life.
    Parvati nursing Ganesha, Hindu painting
  • Uterine Health - The hormone oxytocin, which is released in your body during breastfeeding, helps the contraction of your uterus back to normal. Besides looking pregnant for a shorter time period after giving birth, this also means that you may have a shorter postpartum bleeding. Some studies suggest that this also reduces uterine risks later in life including prolapsed uterus, the rate/necessity of hystorectomies, and the like.
Samsara, modern art, by Petrus Boots
  • Cancers and Longterm Health- Some studies indicate that the risk of getting both breast and ovarian cancer is reduced through breastfeeding. Some studies even indicate of lower incidence of osteoporosis later in life among women that have breastfed.
Breastmilk contains:
  • Protein in breast milk is mostly whey, which is easier to digest than casein (main protein in cow's milk). Protein of breast milk has high amounts of amino acid taurine, which has an important role in the development of the brain and the eyes.
Charity With Four Children Gian Lorenzo Bernini circa 1627-1628
  • Fats - These fats are nearly self-digesting, since breast milk also contains the enzyme lipase, which breaks down the fat. Fat is the main source of calories for babies, something babies need to continue postpartum growth and development. Also, fat in human milk has large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, important for brain development.
    Moche Sculpture
  • Vitamins and minerals - in human milk are bioavailable-meaning they get absorbed well. Breast milk contains substances that enhance the absorption of minerals and vitamins.
Venus Nursing The Cupids, Sir Peter Paul Ruben
  • Stem Cells - Breast milk is the only adult tissue where more than one type of stem cell has been discovered. That is very unique and implies a lot about the impressive bioactivity of breast milk and the consequential benefits to the breastfed infant (see this article for more great information)
Hanoi statue
  • Immune boosters. breastmilk continually passes millions of white blood cells to baby to help baby fight off all kinds of diseases. Also, when mother is exposed to a germ, she makes antibodies to that germ and gives these antibodies to her infant via her milk. Breast milk also contains factors that prevent microbes from attaching, and a long list of other antiviral, antibacterial and antiparasitic factors.
Harappa Culture, India, 2000 BC
"Even more amazing, if a baby contracts an illness that mom has not been exposed to previously, he will transfer this organism through his saliva to the breast, where antibodies are manufactured on site and then sent back to baby via the milk to help him cope. ... Mothers who wean their babies from the breast during the first and even second and third years of life often notice that their child becomes sick more than before, or for the first time." Examining the Evidence for Cue feeding of Breastfed Infants by Lisa Marasco and Jan Barger

Sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, circa 150 AD

  • Hormones and enzymes. Breast milk has lots of digestive enzymes, and also many hormones. These all contribute to the baby's well being.

Horoztepe Sculpture
I am happy to say that, as we learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding, and as our world becomes aware of the damaging practices put in place for birthing, parenting, and early feeding, we are slowly seeing positive changes in our governments support and our cultural and societal beliefs!

For More Beautiful Pictures:
Historic Photos and Prints of Breastfeeding - an awesome Facebook page
Breastfeeding in Art - a webpage of art through the ages
Global Breastfeeding - a picasa photo page

Additional Reading:
Doula Ambitions: Economic Benefits of Breastfeeding
Radical Doula: New Study Discusses The Benefits of Breastfeeding
Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire
A Negro Nurse
A Social History of Wet Nursing in America
Japanese Culture and Breastfeeding
History of Breastfeeding
The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie


Kristina said...

What a wonderful article! Thank you!

shannon said...

hello, thanks for the post. just a note. muslims consider breastfeeding a right of the child. the quran says to breastfeed the child for two years, or however long you and partner agree to. we believe there is a celestial reward given to the mother for each suck the baby takes. it has a very high status in muslim societies. thanks for these great global posts on mothering!

Jen said...

LOVE this post!!! Just LOVE it!!! Sorry I don't know what else to say, so awesome. Thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

What a great write up on breastfeeding. Loved all the pictures too. Obviously I'm a breastfeeding advocate :)

Curls said...

Vere interesting, especially how when women are rich they start to think they are 'too important' to breastfeed/parent a little baby.

abana73 said...

Lovely post! However, there is one typo -- it is "Harappa" culture, not "Haratappa" culture.

WJ said...

Nicole - AWESOME post and extremely informational and well-written. Thank you!

Nicole D said...

Thanks abana73,

Fixed! :)

Unknown said...

FABULOUS series you are doing here! WHAT would i do without your blog? you're just pouring knowledge into my head. i love it! i shared your blog with some friends, who are going to share it with more friends, hopefully. spreading truth, spreading wellness and spreading power!

xoxoxoxo and lots of love, i so appreciate your blog.

Kathryn said...

Awesome post! I bf'ed both of my babies till they were 2 and enjoyed it. I am very pro-breastfeeding and hope this upward trend continues!

Yvonne and Marie said...

Fantastic post,I really love your blog thakyou for the time and energy you puy into making every article so interesting and educational.

Janet said...

This is such a great article. It truly must have taken you ages to source all those wonderful photos.

You might be interested in reading 'Breasts, Bottles and Babies: a history of infant feeding' by Valerie Fildes. It's very good too.

I have been interested in the environmental impact of formula. I read that you would need an extra 114 million lactating cows just to provide formula for all the babies in India, let alone the whole world!

I look forward to reading more of your articles,

Urban Earthworm said...

This is an excellent post. I love all the history and the useful information about breastmilk. If only this were more widely known!


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