Babies Didn’t Just Breastfeed Before Modern Infant Formula
s families around the United States grapple with the infant formula shortage, some social media commentators have been asking: why don’t people just breastfeed? Isn’t that what everyone did before infant formula?
My research on infant and child feeding has taught me that breastfeeding is not possible for everybody and that people always need alternatives. Modern infant formula was not available until the late 20th century, when alternative foods for babies became reliable and nutritious. Many parents had to bear the grief of losing their child to starvation or malnutrition. The modern infant formula is not an option, but a necessity.
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People have breastfed throughout American history for many reasons. Maybe the birthing parent didn’t have enough supply, or the baby could not latch properly. The mother may have died or been forced to go back on her own. The baby might have been adopted by another family or taken in care of by someone else.
Other people might breastfeed the baby occasionally. Sometimes, relatives or friends might help. Wealthy families often had wet nurses who served as servants, or were enslaved. Wet-nursed children often died, but not as frequently as the babies of wet nurses, deprived of their mothers’ milk.
Another risky alternative is bottle-feeding, or spoon-feeding. Babys were fed soft, liquid food made with animal milk, broth or grains. These food were prepared in small batches during the 17th and18th centuries. In the latter half of the 19th century, however, commercially manufactured options had become available.
Ashley Maddox is holding Cole, her 5-month old son after she gave him formula that she purchased through a group of mothers in crisis.
However, infants who weren’t breastfed died often until the twentieth century. Only rarely could alternative foods meet infants’ nutritional needs, leaving many malnourished. Before refrigeration and modern food safety, many infants died from diarrhea caused by food contaminated.
Rates of breastfeeding declined dramatically around the start of the 20th century, and they remained at their lowest levels for many decades. Jacqueline Wolf (historian) describes the situation., Early 20th century pediatricians advocated scheduled feeding, as opposed to breastfeeding on demand. This hampered breast milk production and made it more difficult for women to breastfeed. Women who worked outside of the home were not protected by the workplace for breastfeeding or had to use the latest technology of pumping.
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This was also the era when baby-food and formula companies heavily advertised to parents. Many of these new mothers were convinced that formula was more scientific and modern than breastfeeding. Modern formulas are safer and healthier than ever as food regulations have increased. Amy Bentley notes that most boomers consumed commercial and homemade formulas, rather than breast milk.
The late 20th-century saw breastfeeding enjoy a revival in parenting, pediatrics and public health. According to CDC recommendations, 84% American infants begin breastfeeding at 6 months. Only 25% exclusively breastfeed after that time. The outcomes of breastfeeding are strongly influenced by income and race. Black babies breastfeed less than white infants.
Although some U.S. protections have been enacted for breastfeeding workers (like insurance coverage and workplace lactation rooms), some parents are still prevented from breastfeeding by the absence of paid universal family leave.
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However, even though the U.S. would have paid family leave and other support policies for parents, certain families might still choose to use formula. Mothers who require medication that is not compatible with breastfeeding. Foster or adoptive families. Children with special nutritional and allergy requirements. Parents who just don’t want to breastfeed.
Without modern infant formula infants would starve to death or suffer from illness due to insufficient food. It is a blessing that parents now have many safe choices for feeding their children. However, when those options are limited as they are, this can be a problem. It is not our intention to return to the old.
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