March is women’s history month and we can’t think of a better time to celebrate breastfeeding, one of the most natural acts we can perform as women. The history of breastfeeding is much like a roller coaster view of society’s ever-changing values, perceptions and health-based knowledge.
Breastfeeding has been a standard for babies since the dawn of mammals. All female mammals have the ability to produce and secrete milk, making it, quite literally, the natural choice when resources are limited. In primitive times, if a baby could not be fed by its mother due to death or illness during childbirth, other lactating women in the tribe would feed the child. Sometimes tribe members would feed babies other sustenance, including milk from other mammals mixed with ingredients like sugar, water, oats and barley – the first homemade formula.
For centuries in affluent societies, breastfeeding was farmed out to lower income women called wet nurses. As advancements in childbirth led women to hospitals to give birth, breastfeeding was often viewed as unsanitary and old-fashioned. Many also believed it had sexual connotations, which women wanted to avoid.
Scientific and medical curiosity in the 1800’s set doctors and researchers on a mission to understand what foods make babies thrive. The first commercial formula was invented in 1867 and many others followed suit. As processing and mass production grew, so did the popularity of formula, until more than half of US babies were formula fed in the 1950s.
The 1970s brought a new era of feminism and a return to nature. Women were more educated and ready to return to natural choices for raising their children. Years of research proved that breastfeeding has benefits for baby and mother, which formulas could not offer. And with the invention of the non-hospital grade breast pump, women had more flexibility to nurse and be professionally and socially mobile.
Now the CDC reports that over 47% of babies are breastfed until 6 months and more than 25% of babies are breastfed until at least one year. While the goal is to significantly increase these statistics, breastfeeding education and support is at an all-time high.
Breastfeeding may have a long and rocky history, but it remains as natural as the day it began. And for women who strive to embrace their history and enhance their children’s future, the timeless gift of health, nurture and love as expressed through breastfeeding may be all she needs.