Baby Formula


Formula is very big business. There are only a few manufacturers in the United States, all of whom must meet the same well-defined standards set by the Food and Drug Administration. The three largest are Abbott Laboratories®, Mead Johnson Nutrition®, and Nestle Corporation®.

Standardization was a long time coming.

Artificial feedings have been used since ancient times. Clay feeding vessels dating from 2000 BC were found in graves of newborn infants. Thought to be containers for filling oil lamps, the chemical analysis of residue in the containers revealed casein from animal’s milk.

The type of animal’s milk used was dependent on the kind of animal that was available—goats, sheep, donkeys, camels, pigs, or horses. Most often, milk for artificial feeding was cow’s milk.

Many different devices were used to feed animal’s milk to infants. Some of the devices were made from wood, ceramics, and cows’ horns. A perforated cow’s horn was the typical feeding bottle used during the Middle Ages. By the 1700s, many infant-feeding devices were made from pewter and silver. The pewter bubby-pot, invented in 1770 by Dr. Hugh Smith of Middlesex Hospital in London, was similar to a small coffeepot except the neck arose from the bottom of the pot. The end of the spout formed a knob in the shape of a small heart, with three to four small holes punched into it. A small rag was tied over the holes for the infant to play with and suck milk through.

Another feeding device used from the 16th to 18th centuries in Europe was a pap boat. The device was used to feed infants pap—bread soaked in water or milk, and panada—cereals cooked in broth. Both were used as a supplement to animal’s milk, particularly for infants who showed a failure to thrive. The pap boat included a spoon with a hollow stem so that the pap or panada could be blown down the infant’s throat. The pap boat allowed infants to receive food faster and in greater quantity than would have been possible with breastfeeding.

Feeding bottles, pap boats, and teats during the 16th to18th centuries were difficult to clean. The build-up of bacteria made the devices hazardous to the infant’s health. In the early 19th century, the use of dirty feeding devices, combined with the lack of proper milk storage and sterilization, led to the death of one third of all artificially fed infants during their first year of life.

In the mid-19th century, researchers began to analyze breast milk in an attempt to create a substitute. The first, a liquid containing wheat and malt flour was mixed with cow’s milk, and cooked with bicarbonate of potash (a form of salt). It was said to be the “perfect infant food.” By the late 1800s, the ground floor of modern-day formula had been laid and marketing begun.

In the 1950s the developed world embraced infant formula, making it the feeding method of choice. Aggressive marketing of formulas in developing countries contributed to a global decline in breastfeeding, until the 1970s with the boycott against Nestle Corporation.

A Very Brief History of Formula as We Know it. L.A. Jana and J.S. Shu, American Academy of Pediatrics

Heading Home With Your Newborn, 2nd Edition (Copyright © 2010 American Academy of Pediatrics)

A History of Infant Feeding. E.E. Stevens et al, Journal of Perinatal Education

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