Breastfeeding: Ancient Times through the 17th Century

As long as there have been babies, there have been breastfeeding mothers. When a mother died in childbirth or was unable to breastfeed, infants throughout earlier times have been fed by wet nurses. Others relied on feeding a baby without the breast. Breastfeeding was, and is not always an option.

Ancient remedy

Lactation failure is mentioned in the earliest medical encyclopedia, The Papyrus Ebers, from Egypt (1550 BC), which contains the following remedy:

To get a supply of milk in a woman’s breast for suckling a child: Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it. Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant.

Alternatives to breast-milk

Infants in ancient Greece were fed wine and honey, while Indian children in the second Century AD were given “diluted wine, soups and eggs” at six months of age.

Another alternative to breast-milk was the practice of suckling an animal. Mentioned in the book Milk: A Local and Global History, 15th-Century French women used goats to feed their infants when wet nurses were cast out of favor following an outbreak of syphilis.

Ancient tools to feed the baby

In ancient history, infants were fed using terracotta pots with long spouts, which were sometimes included in infant graves. Europeans around the time of the Renaissance outfitted cows’ horns with leather nipples.

Babies that were hand-fed rarely survived. The tools used to feed babies were not sterilized as no one knew anything about germs.

History of wet nursing

Wet nursing began as early as 2000 BC and extended until the 20th century. During this span of time, wet nursing changed from need (2000 BC) to an alternative choice (950 BC to 1800 AD).

In Greece around 950 BC, women of high social status often insisted upon wet nurses. Eventually, the wet nurses acquired a greater position and were given authority over slaves.

At the height of the Roman Empire, between 300 BC and 400 AD, written contracts were formed with wet nurses to feed abandoned infants, usually unwanted females thrown onto the trash. The wealthy purchased infants as inexpensive future slaves. The wet nurses—slaves themselves—fed the infants for up to 3 years.

During the 5th to the 15th century, society considered childhood a time of vulnerability. Breast-milk was thought to possess magical qualities. It was believed that breast-milk could transmit both the physical and psychological characteristics of the wet nurse to the infant. This belief resulted in protests against the hiring of wet nurses.

Regardless of the recommendations that the natural mother should nurse her child, wet nursing remained a popular, well paid, and highly organized profession during the 14th to the 17th century. The occupation became a prime choice for many poor women.

During this Renaissance period, societal class frequently dictated breastfeeding practices. It was unusual for high-born women to breastfeed because the practice was considered unfashionable and the women worried it would ruin their figures. Breastfeeding prevented many women from wearing the socially acceptable clothing of the time and it interfered with social activities. The wives of merchants, lawyers, and doctors also did not breastfeed because it was cheaper to hire a wet nurse than it was to employ anyone to run their husband’s business or take care of the household in their place.

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