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How Breastfeeding Has Evolved Over Generations

How Breastfeeding Has Evolved Over Generations

Dec 16, 2019

Infant feeding, seemingly the most natural part of caring for a child, is surprisingly complicated. The debates and controversy alone can leave a new mother distressed and confused about the best way to care for their new baby – where, when, how and for how long.

You would think that such controversies are unique to the Information Age, but breastfeeding controversies have been around for centuries. This article delves into the history of breastfeeding in the last few generations. Read on to learn more.

The Wet Nurse

Breastfeeding has always had some controversy because, for example, the concept of wet nurses goes as far back as the late 1800s. It was still a big part of infant feeding as late as the 1920s when US hospitals had wings with wet nurses. 

Often, the wet nurse was a poor desperate woman who was lactating herself. She came into a private family and took up breastfeeding her employer’s child, either for the mother to go to work or because she had limited milk supply of her own. Alternatively, some wealthy women could afford the luxury of a wet nurse and were all too happy to hand over their children to them.

However, no employer would allow the wet nurse to come with her own child, and as a result, their own babies often died from lack of proper care. Now, not all wealthy women took up wet nurses. There were those who wanted, more than anything else, to be able to breastfeed their own child, but couldn’t. 

That’s the sad background of wet nursing and why it fell into disuse. And it’s only through recorded visuals and photos through services like EverPresent that such memories remain alive.

Infant Formula

In the early 1800s, doctors were desperate to save babies’ lives, particularly babies that could not be breastfed for any reason. Even now, children under five years have a higher mortality risk – and it was much worse before the medical advancements of the 20th century.

The idea behind infant formula was to “humanize” cow’s milk – to include the same percentages of protein, fat, and lactose as human breastmilk so that the baby’s body could digest it better.

In the beginning, the formula was made by individual chemists and doctors, but many of the food companies that started around the 1860s took up mass production of infant formula. By this time, they didn’t compare themselves to mother’s milk in any way; they were simply another infant food.

Changing Culture

With the rapid industrialization of the early 20th century and more women entering the workforce, it became harder and harder for American women to breastfeed. Then came the adoption of infant feeding schedules.

Any mother will tell you that breastfeeding stimulates milk production, which means that when the baby is restricted from breastfeeding the mother’s milk supply also decreases. As a result, it became more needful to supplement with formula, which further affected milk supply. But few people in the mid-20th century attributed this dwindling maternal milk supply to the change in infant feeding habits.

Now, wealthy countries are making accommodations to allow mothers to breastfeed their children exclusively in the first six months, and continuously for two years. 


In America, the lack of paid extended maternal leave is central to the debate of breastmilk versus formula. Many homes simply cannot afford to live on a single income, and so the lack of social and economic support structures make breastfeeding hard for American mums.

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Final Thoughts

We can hope that more countries will make lasting changes in the area of supporting new mothers to breastfeed their children. There are numerous health benefits even to adulthood, for both mother and child. 

A lot of the healthy choices we make are done involuntarily, and much to the detriment of future generations. There’s quite a lot of baggage behind the breastfeeding debate, but its benefits to mother and baby are indisputable. 

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