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The evolution of breastfeeding

The natural act of breastfeeding has created tremendous amounts of controversy — not just in recent years, but for centuries. But through it all, have we evolved at all?

In Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science, author Londa L. Schiebinger writes about the magic of breast milk as a cure for deafness, an abortive solution and even a formula for nursing the dead back to life.

Findings from the ancient empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome suggest that women breastfed their offspring, but in the years that followed the process was viewed as “common.” Prior to the 18th century, breastfeeding was a task that the upper class farmed out to socially humble wet nurses.

Eventually, the wet nurse industry was so in demand that it evolved into a paid profession. The majority of well-to-do families, particularly in Europe, employed wet nurses, however, when government officials became aware of growing infant mortality rates, wet nurses took the blame.

During the 18th century, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus encouraged mothers to return to mammalian habits, and legal systems called for wet-nursing to be outlawed. Governments promoted maternal breastfeeding as a more healthy alternative, but were met with resistance by women who viewed this “duty” to breastfeed as a way for men to keep them at home and out of the political arena.

An alleged milk shortage in 19th-century America caused a decline in breastfeeding and kicked off a dangerous fad of giving cow’s milk to babies. Mothers at that time did not understand the serious health implications of feeding difficult-to-digest regular milk to infants under the age of 1. Also making breastfeeding less popular was Sigmund Freud’s insistence that infants suckle for sexual pleasure, inciting many mothers to quickly opt to bottle-feed.

Following World War II, infant formula became readily available. While early moms showed prestige by hiring wet nurses, this era’s upper-crust mothers adopted bottle-feeding (differentiating themselves from lower-class families that could not afford formula). Breastfeeding came to be regarded as unsanitary and old-fashioned.

In the mid-1950s, La Leche League was established. Its appeal to promote the special bond of breastfeeding appealed to all but the middle class, whose mothers continued to opt for formula as the perceived superior option.

Eventually, experts began touting breast milk as an amazing natural deterrent to health and immune problems among babies. Despite new encouragement from hospitals and the government, however, American breastfeeding efforts remained low. Tax exemptions for workplace breast-pumping stations and an amendment of indecency legislation that interfered with public breastfeeding were put into place to make breastfeeding easier and more desirable for both working and stay-at-home mothers.

Despite positive strides made to support a woman’s choice to feed her baby as she desires, controversy continues. While celebrity moms proudly bare their nursing breasts for photo shoots and selfies, well-known establishments continue to harass women who feed their babies in public. How will future generations regard us in the breastfeeding war?

More on breastfeeding

The biggest breastfeeding-in-public fails of 2014
Would you eat breast milk ice cream?
Can you be too obese to breastfeed?

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