The History of Breastfeeding

30th July 2009 3 Comments

It’s fairly well documented that I really struggled with breastfeeding for a number of reasons and I ended up resorting to the bottle. For this act, I have been belittled by middle aged men, criticised for not looking after my child properly and being selfish and made to feel guilty by Health Visitors, certain doctors and some midwifes. The level of pressure that I felt certainly contributed to me suffering from post-natal depression with my first child. I was very careful not to feel pressured with my second.

I really think that if someone looked into it there might be a relationship between the increased pressure to breastfeed and the rise of post-natal depression. It is every woman’s right to chose, in the UK we can boil our water, sterilise bottles and provide a safe, healthy alternative. It is your body, and your choice alone.

I don’t wish to come across as either anti or pro breast-feeding. I don’t think that does anyone any good. However, there are many arguments presented by the pro- breastfeeding lobby and one is the historical ‘in the past’ one. But what did happen in the past? As an archaeologist, I feel reasonably well placed to discuss this. Nonetheless, please bear in mind that I don’t have the opportunity to research at the British Library or my museum library as I’m on maternity leave and I’m limited by the books I have sitting here on my shelf! So, here is a bit of a tin-pot guide. But I hope it conveys the message that children, even in the ancient past, were not exclusively breast-fed. Women still exercised choice or simply needed to do something other than breast-feed for the sake of their own health.

The Key Facts
In the past many women used Wet Nurses; Moses was presented to a wet nurse, as was Mohammad, Napoleon and many other notable historical figures. By Victorian Times there was a whole wet-nursing industry. Needless to say a fair few children died as a result of being nursed by women who were poorly fed themselves.

Wet- nursing was often, but not strictly a practice associated with high social class. It was hoped that women would be able to become pregnant again more quickly if they weren’t feeding as that would enable them to produce another heir. This has been shown to be a fallacy, it is possible to become pregnant if you are breast-feeding.

Wet nursing went into decline in Europe following WWII as a result of the availability of formula. However, shared breast-feeding is still practised in a lot of developing countries and there is a growing small body of UK women that choose to practise shared breast-feeding.

Feeding bottles have been found across the world in a range of cultures from Ancient Egypt, Roman all the way up to modern day Europe. They were made from wood, horn, ceramic or glass. The first glass bottle was patented in 1841. There’s a whole museum of baby bottles with a website here. The image above is of a replica Roman glass feeding bottle. We tend to use plastic bottles today, although glass is making a come back for health reasons!

I don’t want to write an academic article, that’s too much like my work for my blog. If there is enough interest, I will of course, go off to the British Library and sit down and write one, with proper references and some photographs of bottles that I have seen in various museums. However, Ive done some Internet searches and found some useful sites which may be of interest:

The History of Nursing Bottles

The Baby Bottle Museum

A Ceramic Roman feeding Bottle

A pictorial history of baby bottles

Breast-feeding Mom- History

and a couple of books:
+Wet nursing: a history from antiquity to the present Fildes, V Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988
+Breasts bottles and babies Fildes, V Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986

So, there you go, I hope that if you are struggling with the breast-feeding dilemma you can take heart from the fact that women have been having the same issues for at least, the last two thousand years.

Claire Walsh

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  • Bullajabbar 30th July 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Thanks for this. I was reading Cave Mother's website yesterday and she was all hot and bothered about the whole breast feeding fiasco. Being an archaeologist myself, I have enjoyed reading both of your blogs and so having one of you be so for breast feeding and the other one so "well let's look at some sites and then decide for yourself" is marvelous.

  • miss leslieanne 30th July 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Very interesting.<br>And you&#39;re so right – why must we &#39;choose a side&#39;? Pro or Anti – gotta be one or the other!!<br>And the boob pressure to PND ratio too – above all else, the very last thing a new mum needs is being made to feel &#39;unfit&#39; for using bottles. All so silly!<br><br>Must admit though, the wet nurse thing creeps me out a little – I couldn&#39;t ever let anyone else

  • Muddling Along Mummy 1st August 2009 at 10:20 am

    That&#39;s fascinating – lots of things to add to my reading pile there<br><br>I&#39;ve just signed up to be a milk donor after Baby2 is born – seems like a modern equivalent of wet nursing

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