When you do a Google search for "history of breastfeeding", you get hundreds of hits that go something like this:
In ancient times all women breastfed their babies because it was the only way to feed them. Then in the mid 1800's, men like Henri Nestlé began making commercial infant formula. It wasn't long before the rates of breastfeeding began to sharply decline.
... and so on. While all of that is for the most part factual, it is in no way a complete history of breastfeeding. It implies that between ancient times and the mid 19th century, breastfeeding practices were largely uniform across cultures and across times, and what's more, it implies that the breastfeeding relationship between mother and baby was ideal and rosy until the advent of formula.
Based on the few essays and historical documents I've been able to find that deal with earlier history, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the reason formula caught on like it did was because there already existed in Western societies a shocking disconnect between mothers and babies for centuries before formula was invented.
So let's start at the beginning. At some point in ancient history, it was certainly common for women to nurse their own children. But as early as the time of Abraham, the custom of wet nursing had apparently been invented (Gen 24:59 and Gen 35:8 refer to Rebekah's nurse). But Sarah - a very wealthy woman - nursed Isaac (Gen 21:7), and it seems likely (although finding scholarship to back this up is difficult) that the majority of women breastfed their babies. We see that Naomi was a nurse to her grandson Obed (Ruth 4:16), though it is not clear that she was a wet nurse.
While the Bible is mostly silent on the subject, Jewish tradition is full of advice on the "right way" to breastfeed:
- The Mishna (Ketubot 59b) instructs us that breastfeeding her baby is a woman’s obligation toward her husband—so much so that other household functions take lower priority during this time.
- According to the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 81:7) a child may nurse, if healthy, until four years old; a sickly or weak child, until five years old.
- Most sources point towards 24 months as the accepted minimum length of the breastfeeding relationship. Even the most lenient of authorities points to the age when a baby has six to eight teeth. This is estimated to be between the ages of ten and sixteen months.
- The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Brochot 68a) states that a Jew should be involved in Torah every hour of the day just as a baby nurses every hour of the day. Also, a baby should be allowed to nurse as often as he desires. “Even if he nurses all day long it will not harm him” (Tosefta, Sotah 4:1).
Some Orthodox Jewish women believe it is her duty to breastfeed until the baby is 24 months old and that anything less is sinful. Two years seems to be the bare minimum that most cultures recommend. I understand that the Koran also advocates at least 24 months before weaning, and even in European cultures - which have had serious problems with breastfeeding for centuries - experts believed that when the baby had all its teeth its body was ready to be weaned. In Florence in 1415, there was even a law that if a wet nurse weaned her charge before 30 months, she was subject to public whipping (page 21 here).
It would seem that most cultures had a pretty good grasp of the benefits of breastfeeding and its role in preventing infant deaths.* But this is not always the case. In Europe around the Renaissance, something went terribly wrong.....
To Be Continued
*Many cultures did seem to have a fear that colostrum was bad for the baby. Often babies were hand-fed until the mother's milk came in, a practice that surely resulted in the unnecessary deaths of many children.