It’s Not Just You. Women Have Struggled to Breast-Feed Since Ancient Times.

What Women Really Think
Jan. 9 2014 12:15 PM

It’s Not Just You. Women Have Struggled to Breast-Feed Since Ancient Times.

baby_bottle
Formula > donkey milk

Photo by Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

New moms who struggle to breast-feed often feel guilty and ashamed. “It should be the most natural thing in the world,” they think, and the way we valorize the breast-feeding habits of other “less-developed cultures” doesn’t help. African toddlers don’t have tantrums because they’re still breast-feeding past the age of 1? I guess we Americans are just “out of synch with natural rhythms!”

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Not only is assuming that less-developed cultures know more about things like breast-feeding condescending and kinda racist, but it turns out it’s also incorrect. Two recent articles on breast-feeding highlight how new moms all over the world can have, and have long had, difficulty nourishing their children.

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The New York Times reports on an effort to reduce maternal deaths in India, which are still very high despite medical improvements over the years. Tucked into that article are some nuggets about how rural and poor Indian women feed their babies, including: new moms often won’t breast-feed their babies unless their mother-in-laws are present; it’s a common practice for women to give their newborns water instead of breast milk in the first hours after birth, even though that water is often contaminated; and in some villages, the nutrient-rich first drips of breast milk known as colostrum is discarded because it’s “believed to be curdled.”

In the BBC news magazine, Kate Dailey chronicles the long, fascinating history of bottle-feeding in an article called “Breastfeeding: Was There Ever a Golden Age?”* (Short answer: no). “As long as there have been babies, there have been breastfeeding mothers,” Dailey writes. “But for a surprisingly long time, there have also been baby bottles, used to feed infants when mothers couldn't.”

Alongside a photo of a 4,000-year-old “baby feeder,” Dailey writes about how moms in ancient times had difficult deliveries, developed abscesses on their breasts, and struggled to produce milk. They even worked in ancient times, just like today, so they turned to wet nurses or, yes, terra-cotta pots with long spouts. But unlike today—when formula is a completely suitable alternative and produces thriving babies—the alternatives to breast milk back then were questionable. They ranged from donkey milk to wine and honey to melted butter, and babies that were fed this way tended to die.

Indeed, American culture went too far in the opposite direction in the 1950s and ’60s, when formula was pushed and breast-feeding was condemned. But it’s good to get a little historical push-back to the idea that breast-feeding is simply the most natural thing a woman can do, which is how it can feel to a new mom who is having a rough go of it.

Correction, Jan. 10, 2014: This post originally misspelled Kate Dailey's last name.

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