Mother’s Milk

I am the grandmother of yet another grandbaby … which number it is, honestly, I’ve forgotten.  All that matters is each one is perfect and I love them all.  Their name, however, may occasionally slip away from me (but just for a moment).  While visiting with the new Momma recently, it was necessary to reassure her that she’s doing ‘a wonderful job’ and, ‘yes, it will get easier’.   It was quite fascinating to discuss how many beliefs, ideas and customs have changed since I had my first baby (some 50 odd years ago) to today.  From swaddling to breast feeding to when to introduce solid foods – on and on.  Today, the issue at hand was ‘breast feeding’ … and not necessarily ‘should I or should’t I’, but how there was a time when it wasn’t an issue to be decided by the new mother at all.  Doctors discouraged it, opting instead for the “modern and scientific” way to nourish your newborn … “formula”.

When I think of it now, why was this manufactured substitute for mother’s milk the recommended method and why was it referred to as “formula”.  A name which has stuck to this very day.   Did a marketing genius decide the name “formula” would comfort the then new mother who only wanted to give her newborn all the nutrition and love it needed, or was it just a tag name that ‘stuck’.

It really wasn’t that long ago when, if a new mother did not have milk to nurse her newborn, or did not survive childbirth, there were very few choices.  In Israel, 2000 BC, breastfeeding was considered a religious obligation.  Wet nurses were not only practical, but necessary, and in biblical times, held in very high esteem.  From an Egyptian medical encyclopedia, 1550 BC …

“To get a supply of milk in a woman’s breast for suckling a child:
Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it.
Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of 

soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant
.” 

A recent scene from the PBS program, Queen Victoria, showed Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s secretary, interviewing new, lactating mothers from the village to see who had the largest breasts and could possibly nurse the future heir to the throne for the soon-to-give-birth Queen.  Queen Victoria was never interested in breast feeding any of her nine babies, so a “wet nurse” had to be found for each of them.

The scene was actually quite disturbing when you consider that should the lactating new mother be chosen she would have been required to give up nursing her own infant in order to be available at a moment’s notice to feed the infant of the Queen.  Queen Victoria was not alone in her decision.  For many aristocratic women of those times, this was quite a common occurrence.  Because of the necessity of wet nurses, for some poorer women, it was actually a means of providing an income for their families … yes, a career choice.  But by the early 1900s, with the introduction of modern and scientific ways to feed infants, the career of wet nursing had pretty much disappeared.

Although feeding bottles of one sort or another had been in use in every culture since the beginning of time, it wasn’t until the 19th century when Elijah Pratt invented a functional and successful rubber nipple so that orphaned newborns could “latch” on simulating a mother’s breast.  Now the problem was what to put into those bottles that didn’t result in so many infant deaths.  They needed a “formula”.

Obviously, animal milk (cows, sheep, goats) was the most common source of replacing mother’s milk but nutritionally, it was inferior to breast milk.  In 1865 a German scientist,  Baron Justus von Liebig, suggested that if foods consisted of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, couldn’t these nutrients then be combined to replicate mother’s milk?  He did not challenge the idea that mother’s milk was the perfect food for an infant, but rather he claimed he had succeeded in concocting an emergency food, a “formula”, whose chemical makeup was identical to that of mother’s milk.  Two years later, the Baron introduced “Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies” to the European market and by the next year it was being manufactured and sold in London by the Liebig’s Registered Concentrated Milk Company.


Many doctors began proclaiming these “formula foods” (which consisted of dried cow’s milk, wheat malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate) to be superior to the milk of wet nurses.  With the Industrial Revolution now well underway and many women in the workforce, it’s easy to understand how this now “doctor recommended” infant formula food became so appealing.  Unfortunately, with the lack of necessary nutrients missing, “formula” fed babies did not thrive as babies nourished with mother’s milk.

Baby “formulas” continued to be improved and, with the introduction of evaporated milk in the 1910’s, began to be widely commercially available.  Milk corporations began funding clinical studies which suggested that babies fed with evaporated milk formulas thrived “as well as breastfed babies”.  Soon there were dozens of companies manufacturing these products.  The best known of which was Nestle.  Nestle’s advertisements said it was better for babies than milk, for “impure milk in hot weather is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.”  Their most effective marketing campaign was giving away free samples.  Another company, Mellin’s, combined this offer with free handbooks on proper infant care.  Not only did these handbooks convince new mothers of the reasons to feed their infants “formula”, they convinced many doctors as well.

By the 1940s, bottle designs had also improved, from those which lay flat with openings on either sides, to those which stood up straight, each with detachable rubber nipples.  Whatever the design, they were becoming very popular, and by the 1950s, the U.S. and Britain welcomed the introduction of heat-resistant upright Pyrex bottles.  These newly-improved, hygenic bottles could be sanitized, adding another layer of safety for newborns.

The aggressive marketing of “formulas” in not only the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries as well, contributed to a global decline in breastfeeding.  This decline generated negative publicity for many manufacturers of baby “formulas”, and beginning in the 1970s, the movement to promote breastfeeding began.

The controversy of whether to feed your baby naturally or with “formula” was not my intent.   My intention was merely to examine the original question of why do we call this alternative food for mother’s milk “formula”  and why was I never given the choice of whether to nurse my babies or not.  I think I’ve found the answers.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  Food Timeline, Alimentarium, Domestic Geek Girl, The Journal of Perinatal Education,

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