Skip to main content

Breastfeeding history

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | September 28, 2011

One of the global reform campaigns of our time is the effort to persuade women to breastfeed their babies. Michele Obama has made this plea in the United States. There is an active global campaign to dissuade mothers in developing countries from turning to bottled formula. One difficulty in making the case, especially in poorer nations, is that bottle feeding seems so modern and chic, so fashionable. It is a bit odd to think of such a “natural” process as feeding newborns as a matter of fashion, but it is — and so it was in American history, too.

breastfeeding mother with childAlthough mothers nursing their infants seems to meet a basic biological drive, the history of breastfeeding in the United States shows that what is “natural” is very much shaped by cultural influences; such influences can wax and wane and so embracing the “natural,” too, can cycle. Breastfeeding as the ideal way to mother has gone in and out of fashion.

Pushing breastfeeding in early America

A recent paper by Nora Doyle, subtitled “Breast-Feeding and the Maternal Ideal in America, 1750-1860,” inspires this post. Doyle looks at the mothering advice manuals of the day and at the diaries of the middle-class and upper-class women who read those manuals.

Around 1800 such writers increasingly emphasized that breastfeeding was not only healthier, but that it was also natural, that women would find pleasure in it, and that it was route to fulfilling their God-given role as the nurturers of family life. But what else could mothers of that day do but breastfeed?  Some tried feeding their babies a mash, which usually did not work, and many more hired a wet nurse to suckle the child. Wet nurses worked for women who could not themselves nurse and also for well-off women who preferred not to nurse.

The movement to encourage middle-class women to breastfeed was part of America’s 19th century sentimentalization of motherhood. Advice-writers spoke of “the sacred and delightful task of suckling,” worth even struggling through pain and discomfort. And if husbands watched the feeding, the experience would bind the nuclear family that much closer together.

Those middle-class mothers themselves often had mixed feelings about breastfeeding; it did not always seem to work that well for either mother or child. But they largely accepted that it was right thing to do; it was part of their emerging role as “the affectionate and spiritual guardian[s] of society.” And so, at least in principle, breastfeeding became part of ideal bourgeois, Victorian family life.

Then …

The 20th-century experience further demonstrates the power of culture over biology. (I draw in particular from here and here.) Breastfeeding among the middle and upper middle classes had indeed become the ideal at the turn of the century, but many women still – for reasons of need or preference – turned to substitutes. This was not yet the bottle, but still most often wet nurses. Because human milk was clearly preferable to cow milk or other foods, doctors insisted that women who could not or would not nurse themselves hire a wet nurse. But the relationships with wet nurses were fraught.

Wet nurses were almost always poor immigrant or black women, and they were distrusted by their employers. Often they were barred from bringing their own children into the employers’ households and sometimes wet nurses’ babies died of neglect even as their mothers sustained the lives of the employers’ children. Wet nursing in households and in orphanages continued into the 1920s and ‘30s, but by then many wet nurses instead sold their breast milk to be bottled.

The bottle comes and it goes

The real decline of wet nursing came, of course, with the rise of formula bottle-feeding, which began in the 1910s.  Bottle feeding was convenient (especially for women busy outside the home); it was “scientific”; and it was “modern” – it was what mothers who were “with it” did. From that point of view, only primitive or unenlightened women breastfed. By the middle of the 20th century an estimated 80% of American mothers used bottles. The bottle had displaced the breast.

Then, the tide turned fully around (again).

Now, 75% of American mothers start out breastfeeding, up from 24% only four decades ago. And it is the more educated women in America and women in western nations who are leading the move back to the breast. Modern advice-givers have become less tolerant of bottle-feeding and they send the clear message (as does Michele Obama) that the good mother is the breastfeeding mother: It is healthier for the child, both physically and emotionally. (Ironically, this shift away from bottles has come just as research improved the nutritional quality of formula.)

Given that some women find breastfeeding difficult and painful, their quest to be “natural” is a sacrifice to their ideal of the virtuous mother – just as it was about a century ago, before the rise of the bottle. (A couple of papers on issues in the contemporary breastfeeding campaign are here and pdf.)

So, today, we are perhaps where we were two centuries ago in America, with breastfeeding again on the ascent after a period of seeking alternatives. And much of the discussion is about what is “natural.” What seems natural is often entangled with what is fashionable.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Breastfeeding history

  1. Breastfeeding is not a harmful. Those companies who are trying to ban it are doing a really bad thing.

  2. This was another interesting article and I learned a few more new bits of “breast-feeding history”. Thanks! I just wanted to say this: I am a mother of 4 kids. I breast-fed 3 and am currently breast-feeding the last. My goal is to continue till he’s about 2 (this has been the “natural”, or easy time for me to stop with the others). Yes, breastfeeding can be painful, tiring, and so challenging for these and other reasons (work ofcourse being the biggest issue). I have NO regrets about breastfeeding the way I have…I have worked part time and full time and continued to breastfed (pumpimg when needed). I have stayed home(fultime)and breast-fed with the last 2 kids (and I also homescool 2). As a breastfeeding mom, I can’t help but notice how “fashionable” it has become to protest and have sit-ins when breastfeeding isn’t accepted the way ladies want to carry on doing it…I have never and will never want to identify with these ladies. I understand their concern, but if breastfeeding fashionably means pulling my shirt up for 1/2 of Target’s customers to get a free show (not that I think that’s anyone’s purpose/intent), then I will continue to happily go (alone) and find a bathroom stall, or sit in my car and nurse my child there (with a baby blanket or nursing cover, thank you)…can’t expect to be treated lika a lady if I don’t act like one can I?

  3. I’m surprised at how many commercial establishments don’t allow breastfeeding. Restaurants, amusement parks, etc. It seems like we’ve completely devolved, and it doesn’t make any sense to me. It is a natural, life giving process and should be allowed anywhere women are comfortable doing it.

    • Commercial establishments cannot ban breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is protected by law in pretty much all states (some more than others) You cannot be kicked out of any public place that you otherwise have a right to be at and you cannot be arrested for indecent exposure.
      If you see a company trying to ban breastfeeding, you should hand them a printed page of your states breastfeeding laws. 🙂

Comments are closed.