Friday, February 22, 2008

The historical inconvenience of breastfeeding

I've read in a few books lately the factoid that mothers in 19th century Paris were just as breastfeeding averse as American women today, perhaps more so. Here's a book excerpt that mentions the statistic that out of 21,000 children born in 1780 Paris, fewer than 1,000 were fed by their own mothers -- most were sent out to the country to a wet nurse.

We often think that women have been able to avoid nursing their young only in the past 50 years or so with the creation of more effective formulas. But women have been trying to fob off their duty as mammals in multiple cultures and throughout the ages. Books like Our Babies, Ourselves mention the ways that mothers have used containers like bottles, spoons, and cups and substitutes like artificial milk and supplemental or replacement foods almost as long as there has been breastfeeding.

And the wet-nursing industry used to be a booming one. It once was the de facto way middle-class and upper-class mothers had their babies raised. Women would bear their young and then send them off for their first couple years, getting them back weaned and potty trained. Convenient, no? This biography of Jane Austen mentions this practice in regards to Jane's mother:

"Mrs. Austen's system of child-rearing was an unusual one. She was a well-organized woman, and her practice was to give each baby a few months at the breast as a good start--we know from her own account that it was three months in the case of Cassandra--and then hand the child over to a woman in the village to be looked after for another year or eighteen months, until it was old enough to be easily managed at home. For Jane, this handing over is most likely to have followed her christening. A baby of fourteen weeks will be firmly attached to her mother, and to be transferred to a strange person and environment can only be a painful experience. The idea that this was an exile or an abandonment would not have occurred to Mrs. Austen; bonding between mother and child is a largely modern concept, and babies were handed about freely. It does not mean they did not suffer, both in going and in coming back. Cobbett deplored the practice, asking, 'Who has not seen these banished children, when brought and put into the arms of their mother, screaming to get from them and stretching out their little hands to get back to the arms of the nurse?' Poor village mothers were naturally glad of the extra income brought by nursing children of the gentry; a country wet nurse could earn about two shillings and sixpence a week, and even a dry nurse would be helping her own family by taking on such work. Whether Mrs. Austen found a wet nurse ready for each of her children in the village, or whether she felt they could be spoon-fed after their first few months of breast-feeding, we do not know; but she did use the word 'weaning' in the case of three-month-old Cassandra, which suggests the latter. Whatever the system, there was something impersonal about it; the name of the nurse is never mentioned."

I have to disagree with the author, Claire Tomalin, on her use of the word "unusual" in regards to Mrs. Austen's childrearing practices, unless I can assume she meant it's unusual to us, now -- it was not unusual for the time, at least for women of that social class. And by the Austens' social class, I mean in comparison, my social class.

The biography does mention the emotional and developmental toll such games of Musical Children could take on the infants -- attachment to their mother for the first days or months, then attachment to the nurse and her family, followed in both cases by a ripping apart of the child's accustomed world. It sounds much like what I know of the U.S. foster care system today, and it wouldn't be surprising to me to see cases of dissociation from the parents, as Tomalin postulates was the case with Jane and her mother.

But, anyway, we tend to think our modern society invented not liking breastfeeding and finding it inconvenient, but women for millennia have found ways to shirk their duty to their young.

Despite the historically high mortality rate of infants, mothers often preferred not to choose the safest feeding method, that of nursing the infant oneself. There were dangers associated with hiring a wet nurse, such as this manual for selecting one points out: disease, drunkenness, laziness, hygiene issues, and so forth. And there were high dangers associated with using artificial feeds in the days before commercialized formulas, where the mortality rate of orphans could be as high as 90-100%. Even without a statistical study, this must have been obvious to the caregivers.

So, if breastfeeding is obviously so much healthier for infants, why have women always wanted to avoid it?

I think the answers can be found in today's reasons.

Breastfeeding is considered inconvenient, especially in the early days when it's round-the-clock care.

It's seen as animalistic and not sophisticated. Urban women in particular have traditionally disdained it.

Along the same lines of being animalistic, it's seen as uncomfortably sexual, since breasts are so sexualized.

Along the same lines of not being sophisticated, breastfeeding is considered something poor people do, people who can't afford a better option, whether that's hiring a wet nurse or buying formula.

Along the same lines of inconvenience, have you seen the clothes women used to have to wear? Can you imagine trying to casually pop a boob out of this getup? Which is not to say that there weren't nursing clothes that would make it easier, but then as now, they were not necessarily the most fashionable silhouettes and styles.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, breastfeeding one's own babies enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity, as this cartoon pokes fun at. Maybe it's because the fashions of the day were much less constrictive, particularly over the bust!

So, when you breastfeed your own young today, despite the fact that you will also feel part of a long line of mothers stretching back to the earliest humans, feel very modern in your sensibilities. And if you're artificially feeding your young, you're being very old-fashioned!

Because my response to all the reasons listed above not to breastfeed? They're all wrong! It's very easy, natural, normal, safe, and convenient. Join the new movement!


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