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The Informed Parent

Into the Mouths of Babes: A History of Infant Feeding

by Laura Murphy, M.D.
Published on Mar. 15, 2004

Looking down an aisle of baby products in any major supermarket these days, it’s difficult to imagine a time before infant formula. Today a baby might have a different formula for each day of the month, should she so choose. She might feel lactose-intolerant one day, cow-milk-protein-free on another, or highly allergic the next. And for each nutritional mood, there would be a safe and appropriate formula that would still allow her to grow and thrive. But times were not always so good for babies.

The era of wet nursing was not bad for infants. For centuries, mothers who could not breast-feed often employed wet nurses who offered a safe alternative to mother’s own milk. At the time, however, the practice was not thought risk-free. Much concern surrounded the hiring of the wet nurse. For example, a brunette was preferred over a blonde, as her milk was felt to be “generally richer in solid constituents than that of a blonde”. The personal qualities of the wet nurse were also felt to be important. A 1655 observer noted:

“Who knows not that a
Whore’s Malignant Pap
Corrupts the Infant in
Her Wanton Lap.”

Despite these inherent risks, wet nursing was a relatively common practice up through the 18th century in Europe and America.

A Dark Age for infants began in the 19th century with the Industrial Revolution, as crowded cities and poor sanitation bred disease. In addition, with wet nursing fallen out of favor, factory-employed mothers were forced to find alternate means for feeding their infants. Cow’s milk seemed the most likely alternative. But the condition of this milk supply was atrocious. In cities like New York, it earned titles such as “slop-milk” and “deleterious waste”. This was due to it being dangerously filthy, milked from diseased cows housed under the crowded city. This milk was even diluted with water and plaster of Paris or chalk. Forget today’s luxury of added fatty acids for optimal retinal development. This “milk” was a true danger to an infant’s fragile existence. Certainly the state of these things contributed to horrifying infant mortality rates of 43% in the 1830’s Boston, and of 50% in 1839 New York City.

The medical community attempted to respond to the disaster. By the mid-1800’s several physicians began publishing chemical analyses of human breast milk in an effort to understand why it brought health to babies. Others published recommendations on the preparation of infant formula. For example, in the 1850’s J.R. Meigs published a recipe for infant formula that included cow’s milk, cream, sugar and limewater. Commercial infant food soon became popular. This included Justus von Leibig’s Soluble Infant Food, a creation by a German chemist, and Nestle’s Infant Food, a preparation that simply needed dilution with water to prepare. This represented the first true artificial formula available in the United States.

By the late 19th century, Thomas Morgan Rotch of Harvard Medical School developed the “percentage method”. This consisted of a series of elaborate equations aimed at determining the perfect composition for infant formula. This method was popular from about 1890-1915, but soon fell out of favor because of its tedious complexity.

The irony of the situation did not escape Oliver Wendell Holmes who noted:

“A pair of substantial mammary glands had
the advantage over the two hemispheres of
the most learned professor’s brain in the art
of compounding a nutritious fluid for infants.”

The latter half of the 19th century brought other bright notes for infants. In 1864, Louis Pasteur discovered the process that would later carry his name and, subsequently, was tried on milk with great success. By 1890, Denmark used pasteurization to prolong the life of milk, and by 1908 Chicago became the first city in the world to require pasteurization. This had a dramatic effect on infant mortality. In addition, certified milk came on the scene, and the American Association of Medical Milk Commissions set a standard of less than 10,000 bacteria per cc of milk.

Once the safety of the milk supply was established, doctors and nutrition scientists could begin focusing on other aspects of formula. Eventually this resulted in over a century of refining and redefining infant feeding. The result? We continue to come closer and closer to matching the benefit of human milk. Of course the medical consensus remains that mother’s milk is best. But today’s infant formula is darn close, and allows today’s family the luxury of safe options. The dark days of the evil blonde wet-nurse and Petri-dish “slop milk” are over, and babies thrive on all sorts of feeding options.

Despite our best efforts, however, we will never fully understand the miracle of infant growth, and perhaps this anonymous poet puts it best:

“A hundred years will soon go by
Our places will be filled
By others who will theorize
And talk as long and look as wise
Until they too are stilled;
And I predict no one will know
What makes the baby gain and grow.”

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