Women Know You Can't Just Replace Formula with BreastfeedingRoundup
tags: womens history, motherhood, childhood, Maternity
Laura Earls is a PhD candidate in the history of American civilization program at the University of Delaware. Her dissertation, "Mundane Monstrosities" uses material culture to tell a history of the persistence of ideas about maternal bodies and births in early modern cultural imaginations.
The United States is suffering from severe shortages of baby formula — the nationwide out-of-stock rate has reached 43 percent. This shortage has alarmed parents and left some pleading for help on social media. But instead of offering help, many have instead lobbed insults and accusations at mothers, deriding them as inadequate parents for not breastfeeding. Even actress and singer Bette Midler tweeted, “TRY BREASTFEEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.”
While the formula shortage is new, attacks on mothers who don’t breastfeed are not. In the second half of the 18th century, the cultural image of a tender, sentimental mother — one who nursed her own children — became entrenched in popular imagination. This powerful image emerged in part due to the advice of medical manuals circulating in Britain and its American colonies that recommended breastfeeding over the alternative at the time, wet nursing. Male physicians vilified mothers who did not breastfeed as vain, neglectful and even monstrous. These physicians presented breastfeeding as a simple choice, but the reality was much more complicated and these texts unfairly impugned mothers who wanted what was best for their children. Ultimately, physicians’ ideas about breastfeeding said more about the imperial goals of European states than the lived realities of motherhood. The critics of non-breastfeeding parents in 2022 are repeating this centuries-old mistake.
Breastfeeding could be a perilous and painful pursuit in the 17th and 18th centuries, and mothers could choose from a variety of devices to treat issues that befell lactating breasts. Nipple shields made of wood or sterling silver were covered with a cow’s teat and worn to breastfeed, while nipple caps made of wood or beeswax probably soothed chapped nipples during pregnancy or immediately before or after breastfeeding. Breast pumps and glasses expressed obstructed milk ducts, while plasters and surgical tools could relieve breast pain from abscesses. However, if a mother’s main problem was a low milk supply, these devices could not help. But employing a good wet nurse — a lactating woman who got paid to breastfeed other women’s babies — could.
For the upper echelons of European society, hiring a wet nurse was a normal part of motherhood in the medieval period. The labor of a wet nurse was a luxury and a status symbol, and by the early modern period, middling classes could sometimes afford this labor as well.
Yet, in the 17th century, European physicians began criticizing the practice and arguing that maternal breastfeeding was preferable and more natural than wet nursing. In his 1651 text, “A directory for midwives,” English herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper argued that a woman who did not breastfeed “cannot love her Child; which if she do not, the more inhumane Beast she.”