This is the second piece in a series on breastfeeding. The first part was introductory material. This part is the meat of the history. And part three, which is not written yet, tries to form conclusions. For a much more complete and well-researched history of breastfeeding in Renaissance Europe, please read Historical Perspectives on Breastfeeding. All page number references refer to this essay.
In medieval Europe, just about any doctor, midwife, or priest who touches on the subject urged women to nurse their own babies. And so far as I know, it used to be the normal way of things. But by the time of the Renaissance breastfeeding - and childcare in general - went out of vogue in the upper classes.
It's hard to say what, exactly, caused this. In my opinion, it was likely a result of the Plague of the mid 1300's, when so many were dying that parents either gave up caring whether their children lived or died, or they couldn't stand watching them die anymore. Whatever the reason, sometime in the 14th century wet nursing took off. Breastfeeding rates plummeted among the upper classes. Mothers sent their babies away for a year or two to be nursed by another woman, and the disconnect began.
"It was not until the late 18th century that women were permitted to take in more than one child or to nurse both their own child and that of another woman." (p34) This meant that a horribly large number of babies of the upper and lower classes were not nursed by their own mother. In fact, in Paris in 1780, a police lieutenant "declared that out of the 21,000 children who were born each year in that city, only 1,000 were nursed by their mothers and another 1,000 by live-in wet nurses; all the others were sent out to the country" (p34). And without the immediate bond between mother and baby (and often a resentment on the part of the wet nurse, who had to send away her own child in order to nurse this new one), maternal affection was sorely lacking in Europe:
"It is easy to see from experience how this natural affection, in which we invest so much authority, has superficial roots. Every day, in exchange for a small profit, we tear children from their mothers' arms and make them take ours instead; we make them abandon their offspring to some emaciated wet nurse, to whom we would never give our own child, or to some goat"And shockingly, many of these children were passed from wet nurse to wet nurse - at least 33% in 15th century Florence had two wet nurses, while 2% had five (p37). The children hardly saw their parents during this time, as the ideal wet nurse lived in the country and the roads were often difficult to travel:
-Michel de Montaigne, late 16th century (p34)
"From the 17th century, medical writers urged parents... to visit their children at nurse.... [R]egular parental visits and close supervision were the exception rather than the rule. ... In the late 16th century, the children of John Dee were visited by their parents only once every one or two months. Two centuries earlier Lapo Mazzei, a poor notary of Prato and father of 14 children, was certainly no exception to the rule when he wrote... of his weaned son: 'Your godson, whom I have only seen once before, has come back to me from his wet nurse....'"Obviously, the child often faced serious emotional trauma when, upon weaning, they were uprooted from their wet nurse and brought to live in the home of strangers, their parents.
In the rare cases where a woman did nurse her own child, society viewed her as something of a saint. "In fact, such was the 'superior' affection that women bore for the children they suckled that they often wrote about their greater devotion to them and even left them extra money in their wills" (p26).
One of the most interesting pieces I've read while researching this topic was The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie, written in 1622 by a lady who had sent her own children out to a wet nurse, but whose daughter-in-law had changed her mind when she nursed the grandchildren. She gives the reasons why women used wet nurses, namely "that it is troublesome; that it is noysome to ones clothes; that it makes one looke old, &c." She regrets sending her own children away, especially since she believed "the death of one or two of my little Babes came by the defalt of their nurses. Of all those which I had for eighteene children, I had but two which were throughly willing, and carefull." The Countesse reasons, using Scripture, that it is a woman's duty to nurse her own children. But read the whole thing yourself.
As it happened, about a hundred years later, there was a brief time in the mid 1700s where many European women nursed their children. But it was short-lived, and there was a brief return to wet nursing before, sadly, hand feeding took over. Women had got used to having their babies at home with them (thankfully), but they no longer wanted to breastfeed. Obviously, the infant mortality rate remained high, mostly because of the horrible concoctions that were being passed off as infant food.
The rest of the story you likely know. Pasteur, Nestlé, and the formula industry were born in this culture, and it is only now that there has been a serious surge of breastfeeding mothers. It is the first time in two hundred years that a significant percentage of western women breastfed for any real length of time, and only the second time since the wet nursing fad took hold back in the 13th century that women have nursed their own children.
So the next time someone blames formula companies for the low breastfeeding numbers, back up for a minute and look back to the real root of the problem. Formula companies were capitalizing on an attitude towards mothering and breastfeeding that has existed for over 400 years in the West. Blaming them is missing the whole point: Western women don't like being their children's nurses, and they haven't liked it for well over 400 years. That attitude needs to change first, otherwise our efforts will only have a limited effect.
In part three: cultural attitudes towards breastfeeding, particularly as it relates to religion.