This week (14 to 20 May 2006) is National Breastfeeding Awareness Week.

In celebration, I will be blogging about breastfeeding more frequently than any sane person could stand. Sorry, but there it is.

Breastfeeding in the ancient world

Two thousand years ago, the decision was not between breast and formula milk, but between the mother’s own milk and that of a wet nurse.

Roman philosopher Favorinus said this, upon visiting a family newly blessed and offering his congratulations (the new mother being asleep at the time):

‘I have no doubt’, he said, ‘that she will nurse the baby with her own milk’.

But when the girl’s mother said that her daughter should be spared this and nurses provided – so as not to add the burdensome and difficult task of nursing to the pains of childbirth, he said, ‘I pray you, woman, let her be completely the mother of her own child. What sort of half-baked, unnatural kind of mother bears a child and then sends it away? to have nourished in her womb with her own blood something she could not see, and now that she can see it not to feed it with her own milk, now that it’s alive and human, crying for its mother’s attentions? Or do you think’, he said, ‘that women have nipples for decoration and not for feeding their babies? …

‘”But it’s not important’, I hear said, “as long as the baby is alive and well-fed whose milk it drinks.’ Why then does not the same person say, if he understands so little of nature, not also think that it doesn’t matter in whose body a human being is formed? … ‘Why in heaven’s name corrupt that nobility of body and mind of the newborn human being, which was off to a fine start, with the alien and degraded food of the milk of a stranger? …

‘And furthermore who could forget or belittle that those who desert their newborn and send them away to be fed by others cut or at least loosen the bond and that joining of mind and love by which nature links parents to their children….’

And the following is the physician Soranus’ advice, given in 1st century Rome:

To be sure, other things being equal, it is better to feed the child with maternal milk, for this is more suited to it, and the mothers become more sympathetic towards the offspring, and it is more natural to be fed from the mother after parturition just as before parturition. But if anything prevents it one must choose the best wet-nurse, lest the mother grows prematurely old, having spent herself through the daily suckling.

Less ancient, but along the same lines, is this 17th century advice from James Guillemeau (I have modernised the spelling for ease of reading):

Though it were fit, that every mother should nurse her own child: because her milk which is nothing else, but the blood whitened (of which he was mad, and wherewith he had been nourished the time he stayed in his Mothers womb) will be always more natural, and familiar unto him, than that of a stranger: and also by nursing him herself, she shall be wholly accounted his mother: yet since they may be hindered by sickness, or for that they are too weak and tender, or else because their Husbands will not suffer them, therefore I say, it will be very necessary to seek out another Nurse: and everyone knows how hard a thing it is, to find a good one, because they have been so often beguiled, and deceived therein…

It looks like the same kind of thinking prevailed then as now. Even then people knew that the mother’s own breastmilk was the best thing for the mother’s own child, and even then people opted out for a range of reasons – some better than others.

Thanks to KellyMom for the links.