I’ve just spent a good many hours reading a book about the history of infant feeding in the USA.
Mothers and Medicine: a social history of infant feeding 1890-1950. By Rima D.Apple
It has been interesting to learn about the way breastfeeding was viewed at the end of the nineteenth century, just as artificial baby formula was being developed. Although this is definitely a history of the US experience, we can allow reflections on breastfeeding in Australia where many broad cultural themes were similar, such as the role of science and medicine in everyday life, and the lived experience of women.
The “cult of true motherhood” or the “cult of domesticity” described how women were viewed in the latter part of the nineteenth century: women were defined by their role as mothers, and were entirely responsible for the well-being of their children. Kind of nice to have the recognition, but at times it would have been a tough load to carry.
In the nineteenth century in the United States, breastfeeding was generally seen as the best way to feed a baby, but the lactating breast was also seen as a sensitive and unpredictable organ: milk supply could be effected by anything from a “fretful temper” to a “fright”, and breastfeeding was likely to overtax the mother’s well-being, causing a “general weariness and fatigue”. Lactating women were encouraged to eat well, exercise a little and cultivate a serene disposition(!).
Go on…breastfeed…just make sure you do it perfectly. Oh, and good luck.
The second best way to feed your baby (should your unpredictable breasts not do your asking, despite your serenity) was for another woman to feed your baby. But wet-nursing was also problematic: how to ensure that this woman from the working class would be eating well, maintaining some serenity and not wasting her precious milk on her own infant? Never mind the enduring view of character being conferred by a baby’s food source.
Infant mortality rates were alarming, criticism of wet nurses widespread. The medical and scientific solution to the problem was to further develop baby formula. Bottle feeding was seen as a thing able to be manipulated by science, unlike the vagaries and uncertainties of that most female of activities: lactation.
And so began an era of medical advice for infant feeding. While mothers were very special people who were expected to take responsibility for their children’s upbringing, they would need a little bit of help from medicine if breastfeeding wasn’t working. That help would be in a bottle of baby formula, perhaps suggested by a doctor qualified in the newest of medical specialties: paediatrics.