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Breastfeeding through the 17th century

As long as there have been babies, there have been breastfeeding mothers. In cases where a mother died during childbirth or was unable to breastfeed, infants throughout earlier times have been fed by wet nurses. Others relied on feeding a baby without the breast. Breastfeeding was and is not always an option.

Ancient tools to feed the baby

In ancient history, infants were fed using terracotta pots with long spouts. Europeans around the time of the Renaissance outfitted cows’ horns with leather nipples. Babies that were hand-fed rarely survived. The tools used to feed babies were not sterilised as no one knew anything about germs.

History of wet nursing

Wet nursing began as early as 2000 BC and extended until the 20th century. During this span of time, wet nursing changed from a need to an alternative choice.

In Greece around 950 BC, women of high social status often insisted upon wet nurses. Eventually, the wet nurses acquired a greater position and were given authority over slaves.

At the height of the Roman Empire written contracts were formed with wet nurses to feed abandoned infants, usually unwanted females thrown onto the trash. The wealthy purchased infants as inexpensive future slaves. The wet nurses—slaves themselves—fed the infants for up to 3 years.

During the 5th to the 15th century, society considered childhood a time of vulnerability. Breast milk was thought to possess magical qualities. It was believed that breast milk could transmit both the physical and psychological characteristics of the wet nurse to the infant. This belief resulted in protests against the hiring of wet nurses.

Regardless of the recommendations that the natural mother should nurse her child, wet nursing remained a popular, well paid and highly organised profession during the 14th to the 17th century. The occupation became a prime choice for many poor women.

During the Renaissance, societal class frequently dictated breastfeeding practices. It was unusual for high-born women to breastfeed because the practice was considered unfashionable and the women worried it would ruin their figures. Breastfeeding prevented many women from wearing the socially acceptable clothing of the time and it interfered with social activities. The wives of merchants, lawyers, and doctors also did not breastfeed because it was cheaper to hire a wet nurse than it was to employ anyone to run their husband’s business or take care of the household in their place.

Breastfeeding goals
There has been substantial progress in recent years in getting mothers to breastfeed their infants because of the following:
  • Breastfeeding provides a critical support for infants’ immunologic, nutritional, physical and cognitive development. Research shows that breastfeeding is associated with several benefits to children, including reduced rates of infectious diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, lymphoma, leukaemia, Hodgkin’s disease and obesity.
  • Children who are breastfed during early infancy are less likely to suffer from diarrhoea, ear infections, lower respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, and bacterial meningitis. Breast milk may also help protect against allergies and digestive disorders.

Studies of breastfeeding also show it to be associated with decreased rates of adverse health and developmental outcomes later in life:

  • For example, children who were breastfed for 9 months were 30 percent less likely to be overweight than infants who were never breastfed.
  • Mothers who breastfed their children for at least three months were significantly less concerned about their child’s language and motor skill development at age six, compared to mothers of children who were never breastfed.
  • The benefits of breastfeeding for cognitive development have also been demonstrated into adulthood.
  • Infants who were breastfed for three months or more had significantly higher scores on assessments of their language and intelligence as adults. Studies demonstrate an association between breastfeeding and improved vision, higher IQ and better cognitive functioning.
  • In addition to the benefits to infants, breastfeeding is also associated with positive outcomes for mothers. Studies demonstrate several maternal health benefits, including earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight, reduced rates of breast and ovarian cancers and decreased risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis later in the mother’s life.
  • Breastfeeding mothers also report higher rates of mother-infant attachment and bonding, feelings of maternal empowerment and confidence.

From infants born in 2013, 81 percent of mothers reported ever breastfeeding, 52 percent reported still breastfeeding at six months, and 31 percent reported breastfeeding at 12 months.

  • These figures reflect growing proportions of infants who are breastfed.  Between 2000 and 2013, the number of infants who continued to be breastfed at twelve months increased by 97 percent (from 16 to 31 percent); the amount who were breastfed at six months increased by 52 percent (from 34 to 52 percent); and the amount who were ever breastfed increased by fourteen percent (from 71 to 81 percent).
  • South Africa has one of the lowest exclusive breastfeeding rates in the world, with only 8% of mothers breastfeeding for the recommended six months. Most children under 6 months are being mixed fed, where mothers breastfeed but also give their babies solids and other fluids. Mixed feeding is responsible for high rates of diarrhoea and contributes significantly to infant malnutrition and deaths.
  • Babies of HIV-infected mothers who are mixed fed are eleven times more likely to contract the virus than breastfed babies, according to research. The solid food and formula milk seem to damage their intestines’ sensitive lining, making it easy for the virus to infect them. Many factors influence a mother’s ability to optimally feed her infant. Reasons for low rates of exclusive breastfeeding include a lack of education about its benefits, a lack of support in the workplace and a culture of mixed feeding, where breast milk is thought to be inadequate.