History, Impact today

Nutritious Chemistry: The History of Maternal Milk, Wet-nursing and Infant Formula

“When we trust the makers of baby formula more than we do our own ability to nourish our babies, we lose a chance to claim an aspect of our power as women. Thinking that baby formula is as good as breast milk is believing that thirty years of technology is superior to three million years of nature’s evolution.”

Christine Northrup

Maternal Milk and Ancient Societies

Infant feeding rituals have been around for centuries. Surprisingly, the practice of wet nursing was recorded as early as 2000 BC and continues into this century. It began as a response to need, as mothers died during childbirth more often before the advent of modern medicine. Wet nursing was an organized and regulated profession throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In ancient Greek society, wet nurses utilized by wealthy women of the highest social class were highly valued and even granted authority over slaves. During the Roman Empire, wet nurses were often contracted to feed infants abandoned by the poor and purchased by the wealthy to serve as future slave labor. Such contracts were normally for 3 years.

Jacques Guillemeau, a 17th century French obstetrician, advocated women nursing their own children rather than using wet nurses. According to his theory, wet nursing could result in babies being switched, the child could form a stronger bond with the wet nurse than the natural parent, and her milk could transmit her genetic imperfections to the nursing infant. His advice was met with considerable resistance because the aristocracy believed that nursing ruined women’s figures in addition to being unfashionable.

The Development of Formula to Replace Maternal Milk

Before bottle feeding became common in the late 19th century, cows’ horns were among the many different devices used to deliver animal’s milk to infants. The use of unsterilized devices and the lack of refrigeration led to bacteria that resulted in the deaths of approximately one third of all babies fed artificially before they reached their first birthday. Nicholas Appert developed a food sterilization technique that utilized sealed containers in 1810.
Evaporated milk was patented by William Newton in 1835. 1n 1853, the addition of sugar resulted in the popular infant food called Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, still sold today. One of the first powdered formulas, called Liebig’s formula, consisted of cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. While at the time, it was considered the perfect infant food, it was later revealed that many processed infant foods, while fattening, lacked sufficient nutritive value. Nutrients were added individually over time. The first rubber nipple was introduced in 1845.

Maternal Milk and Modern Economics

Many baby formula manufacturers developed aggressive advertising campaigns to promote their products as superior to maternal milk. Many believe that some of their methodology was unethical. For example, Nestle was accused of distributing free formula in hospitals, then charging for it once the mothers had stopped lactating as the result of bottle-feeding. Clean water to mix with the formula was often not available, resulting in infant deaths as the result of formula tainted by bacteria.

Bottle feeding fell out of favor during the 20th century as the result of studies showing that mother’s milk, in addition to being nutritionally superior, also contained immunization properties. At one point, the rate of breast-feeding had risen to 90%, but has since decreased within the 21st century to approximately 42%. The increasing necessity for both parents to work in order to provide for even their children’s most basic needs is partly responsible for this reversal. Many believe that aggressive advertising also downplays research which shows that formula-fed babies are more likely to develop atopy and diabetes mellitus, as well as being more susceptible to childhood obesity.

A Return to Maternal Milk

According to the World Health Organization, maternal milk from a donor is the next best option after a mother’s own breast milk, which has led to a resurgence in the age-old practice of wet-nursing. While genetic imperfections cannot be passed through nursing, infections can, which is why anyone intending to serve as a wet nurse should be thoroughly screened for infectious diseases. Additionally, because babies require different nutrients at different ages and the composition of women’s breast milk naturally accommodates those changing needs, it’s recommended that the wet-nurse have a child of approximately the same age.

Experts agree that bonding does indeed take place during the process of nursing. That’s one reason that cross nursing has been used by adoptive mothers to stimulate their own milk production. Scientific observations show that babies still know the difference between their own mothers and a wet nurse. Mother-infant bonding is not just the result of nursing, but of the infant being imprinted by the sound of her voice and facial expressions. One infant refused to suckle when his wet-nurse spoke because he did not connect the voice with the mother to whom he had emotionally bonded.

While science has significantly improved the quality of baby formula in recent years, all scientific evidence still concludes that maternal milk is best.

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