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What Parents Did Before Baby Formula

The baby was just two weeks old, and hungry. Elizabeth Hanson tried to breastfeed, but didn’t have enough milk. With terror, she watched as her daughter lost weight, tiny bones protruding from her skin.

In America, in modern times, most parents can count on multiple safe, healthy options for feeding an infant: breast milk or formula. That is, unless they are experiencing the impacts of the current formula shortage, as thousands of families across the United States are.

But in 1724, Elizabeth Hanson couldn’t turn to formula when her milk dried up. Her story illustrates the nightmarish realities that confronted families before the development of modern commercial formula in the mid-20th century.

Hanson, an English colonist from New Hampshire, was captured from her home during Dummer’s War by Native American Wabanaki raiders alongside her infant. Famished, exhausted, and traumatized by her ordeal, she lost her milk supply. She fed her baby broth, when she could get it; when no other food was available, she warmed water in her mouth and let it dribble down over her breast for her infant to suck. But the baby was starving. Hanson later related her fear that the child was “more like[ly] to die than live.”

One of her captors, an older woman, noticed Hanson’s struggle. The woman showed Hanson a Wabanaki recipe for infant food: make walnut milk, and then boil it with fine cornmeal. This food was “very nourishing to the babe,” who “began to thrive and look well.”

I’m a scholar of the history of feeding infants and children in early America, and my research is full of stories of hungry babies like this one. Hanson, and the Wabanaki woman who saved her baby’s life, lived in an era when many babies who could not have breast milk died. In the 18th century, as in our time, some birthing parents and babies struggled to breastfeed. Milk supply lagged, nipples cracked and split, ducts blocked, abscesses and mastitis took hold (and, before the invention of antibiotics, could be deadly)—that is, if the mother hadn’t died in childbirth. Prematurity, tongue-tie, cleft palate, or other physiological problems kept infants from latching on.

Social factors might prevent breastfeeding too. Slaveholders forced enslaved women back into the fields soon after birth; mothers in poverty returned to work because they needed the pay. Moreover, many cultures recognized the partially contraceptive effects of lactation, or had taboos against sexual activity for nursing people. Historians including Paula Treckel and Richard Follett explain that a husband or enslaver who wanted a woman to return to fertility might deny her child the breast.

Read entire article at The Atlantic