Cultures, Primitive Societies

What we learned from the Samoan indians on maternal health and breast feeding

maternal health

Have you wondered about the history behind the re-introduction of wet nurses and breastfeeding into American and European culture?

The old ideas of breastfeeding, maternal health and wet nursing are returning as part of worldwide or universal culture as science verifies vital aspects of maternal health that some cultures never lost touch with.

What is surprising is the story behind the history of breastfeeding reintroduction due to one educated American woman.

How Margaret Mead revived breastfeeding, promoted the wet nurse profession and maternal health professional work

In the early and emerging days of the field of Anthropology, Margaret Mead decided to place her professional focus as a Ph.D. on the Samoan people. In particular, she studied sexuality of females of all ages on the island where she conducted her work in 1924. However, what was interesting was Margaret Mead’s intertwining of personal experience with her professional study of the Samoan women.

What Margaret Mead studied in Samoa

Numerous references to Margaret Mead’s work with the Samoan women in 1924 have been published in academic works over the past nine decades. What makes her work so fascinating is that Mead attempts to display observations in the most honest manner possible.

This is the main idea behind good anthropology and dispelling the problems associated with ethnocentrism. Since Mead’s work with Samoan women is considered to be sound academic work, it is still highly referenced. One field of academia that uses her research frequently is nursing and maternal health.

What breastfeeding was like for Margaret Mead

You will see films and other works about Margaret Mead announcing that she “reintroduced breastfeeding to America.” When Margaret Mead pushed the envelope with challenging ideas in America about maternal health and breastfeeding, her notions denoted several big changes. Interestingly, maternal health practices during the 1920s and 1930s relied heavily on using formula instead of breastfeeding or using a wet nurse. Popular maternal health literature of the time also asked women to give babies formula on a schedule instead of feeding the baby when it was hungry.

Margaret Mead’s relationship with Benjamin Spock

In addition to a professional relationship, Margaret Mead used Spock as a pediatrician for her own child. Mead gave birth to a girl in 1939, and sought out the top professional of her time. Spock was the author of several books on childrearing that were crucial throughout the middle of the 1900s, and Margaret Mead shaped Spock’s writing about maternal health and breastfeeding with her research before she used him as a pediatrician.

Maternal health and wet nursing

In popular media, Margaret Mead was known for her work with the Samoan women that concluded that a baby should be breastfed on demand. This differed from a previous idea that was prevalent in American culture that asked mothers to feed their babies formula on a schedule. Nevertheless, what often gets overlooked is that Mead also favored wet nursing.

In the book A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle by Janet Golden, there is paraphrasing from Margaret Mead’s autobiography, Blackberry Winter (1972), that talks about Mead’s concerns in 1939 that she might not be able to breastfeed her own child. If this was the case, Mead remembered that she decided she would investigate hiring a wet nurse. Janet Golden suggests that Mead may have found hiring a wet nurse in 1939 a challenge because the practice was sharply on the decline due to the upsurge in infant formula use.

Margaret Mead’s enduring legacy

On a deeper level, Margaret Mead said her thoughts about her Samoan research changed when she actually became a mother. In Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century by Rosalind Rosenberg, there is a quote that explains this shift.

In her earlier books, “Coming of Age in Samoa” (1928) and “Sex and Temperament” (1935), she had portrayed motherhood as incident in the life cycle, a positive experience but not significant for the culture at large. … By the time she wrote “Male and Female” in 1949, however, Mead had begun to discuss the ways in which biology might work dialectically with environmental forces to shape culture. Maternity became the central feature of this dialectic, the one great problem that all cultures must confront in organizing gender roles. How, she asked, do societies deal with universal experiences, like pregnancy and childbirth?

Opponents of Margaret Mead 

Infant formula was introduced in the 1920s, and an aggressive campaign to sell this product began. In the forefront was Nestle that was well-known for making advertisements for developing nations that encouraged mothers to use formula instead of breastfeeding.

The situation was so dire that United Nations stepped in to rein in Nestle and other infant formula companies in favor of breastfeeding. The main issue with that was that many women in developing countries did not have access to clean drinking water, and their babies would die. While it is not easy to find information about opponents to Margaret Mead and her work with breastfeeding, what you will find is a heavy legal push in the 1960s and early 1970s by infant formula companies that disputed Benjamin Spock’s published breastfeeding advice that used Margaret Mead as a reference.

What Margaret Mead means to us today

Over the past decades, multiple branches of academics have combined to form the philosophies behind worldwide maternal health practices. In the end, Margaret Mead is still remembered because her work is still relevant. The truths that she learned from the Samoan women about breastfeeding on demand were correct and transformed maternal culture in America.

Today, we have universal maternal practices that are based upon using the most practical means possible. While we certainly have not strayed away from using infant formula, more women around the world are being shown by science and culture that breastfeeding is the best way. Perhaps in the future, Margaret Mead’s nod toward wet nursing practices will expand as breastfeeding acceptance becomes universal.

maternal health
The Natchez, Eugène Delacroix, 1835, Credit Line Gifts of George N. and Helen M. Richard and Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh and Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer
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