While the formula shortage is new, the attacks on non-breastfeeding mothers are not. In the second half of the 18th century, the cultural image of a tender and sentimental mother – one who breastfeeds her own children – took root in the popular imagination. This powerful image emerged in part through the advice of medical textbooks circulating in Britain and its American colonies which recommended breastfeeding rather than the alternative at the time, breastfeeding. Male doctors vilified non-breastfeeding mothers as vain, neglectful, and even monstrous. These doctors presented breastfeeding as a simple choice, but the reality was much more complicated and these texts unfairly attacked mothers who wanted the best for their children. Ultimately, doctors’ ideas about breastfeeding said more about the imperial goals of European states than about the lived realities of motherhood. Critics of non-breastfeeding parents in 2022 repeat this age-old mistake.
Breastfeeding could be a perilous and painful pursuit in the 17th and 18th centuries, and mothers could choose from a variety of devices to treat problems that plagued lactating breasts. Wooden or sterling silver nipple shields were covered with a cow’s teat and worn when breastfeeding, while wooden or beeswax nipple shields probably relieved chapped nipples during pregnancy or immediately before or after. breastfeeding. Breast pumps and goggles expressed milk duct obstruction, while bandages and surgical tools could relieve breast pain caused by abscesses. However, if a mother’s main problem was low milk supply, these devices could not help. But employing a good wet nurse – a breastfeeding woman who is paid to breastfeed other women’s babies – could.
For the upper echelons of European society, hiring a wet nurse was a normal part of motherhood in medieval times. A nanny’s job was a luxury and a status symbol, and in the early modern period the middle classes could sometimes afford this job as well.
Yet in the 17th century, European physicians began to criticize the practice and argue that breastfeeding was preferable and more natural than breastfeeding. In his 1651 text, “A Directory for Midwives,” The English herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper argued that a woman who does not breastfeed “cannot love her child; who if she doesn’t, the Beast more inhuman than her. While midwife Jane Sharp recognized in her 1671 textbook, “The Book of Midwives”, that it was normal for wealthy families to send their children to be cared for by nannies, she claimed that this practice altered “the natural disposition of the child”. She admitted that some women couldn’t physically breastfeed, but said many women who thought they were incapable could breastfeed if they just tried harder. Instead, they were unwilling because they didn’t love their children as much as “stupid creatures” – animals – loved them. These comparisons illustrate a broader societal understanding of breastfeeding that continued into the 18th century.
Doctors’ manuals often accused women who employed nannies of vanity and selfishness – according to these doctors, women did not want breastfeeding to change the appearance of their breasts, and nannies also freed them to pursue activities social. This literature accused these mothers of not loving their children or God enough. Like Sharp, the anonymous author of “The Ladies Physical Directory” (1739) compared them negatively to animals – including lions, wolves, tigers and bears. These creatures, though they embodied wickedness, also exemplified natural and sacrificial motherhood because they were willing to “almost starve themselves, rather than go off and deprive their young of their milk.” In contrast, women would have chosen a plethora of activities and priorities – including fashion, plays, operas, assemblies and masquerades – over breastfeeding their own children.
These doctors often assumed that women did not know their own body’s capabilities well enough to decide whether to breastfeed their own children. “The Ladies Physical Directory” claimed that while some women couldn’t physically breastfeed, many of those who thought they couldn’t were wrong – they simply had hysterical builds or were easily discouraged by sore nipples. He encouraged his readers to use his “Healing Balsam”, an ointment that served as a treatment and prevention allowing breastfeeding. Nipple pain, he said, was “the only material inconvenience of breastfeeding children,” and his treatment recommendations would cause mothers to rethink their objections to breastfeeding, thereby saving the lives of their infants.
Fear of the dangers of breastfeeding drove much of this commentary. These experts said that children acquire the mental, physical and emotional qualities of a wet nurse through her breast milk, direct contact with her body or by imitating her mannerisms. Sharp warned that nurses with perceived physical impairments would pass these conditions on to the child, who would “participate by sucking the misqualified milk these people produce”.[.]”
Part of the fear surrounding breastfeeding is the possibility that rich children will grow up with manners below their social class. “The Ladies Physical Directory” advised breastfeeding as the most natural option for newborns, in part because the practice would maintain children’s resemblance to their parents. When parents choose to breastfeed, the author notes that they often complain that their children don’t look like them. He reminded readers to consider that “they could easily trace their ill-turned thoughts, inordinate desires, vicious inclinations, and evil passions of mind to the nurses who nursed them.” He warned that such mental shifts could not be corrected by “the most polite future education”.
A key moment in the assault on wet nursing came when British physician William Cadogan published “An Essay upon Nursing” in 1748. (it only reached the American colonies in 1750). In this piece, Cadogan lamented that nursing had been “for too long fatally left to the management of women”. Most mothers, he argued, could not or would not “undertake the painful task of nursing their own children”. Like previous critics, he blamed vanity – a reluctance to “give up a bit of the beauty of one’s chest” which prevented women from feeding their children. Cadogan even advised his male readers to oversee the breastfeeding management of their children to ensure that their wives followed Cadogan’s best practices.
But these publications grossly misrepresented the lived realities of colonial American motherhood, particularly for poor women, Indigenous women, and enslaved women of African descent, and misunderstood why women employed wet nurses. White women in England and early America employed wet nurses to achieve an idealized version of motherhood—they saw breastfeeding as crucial, not antithetical, to being a good mother. Even though the milk that fed her child came from a wet nurse, the mother always chose and supervised the wet nurse to ensure the best possible care for her child.
Yet male doctors misinterpreted these efforts and harangued the women’s character, accusing them of being bad mothers or worse.
This story offers a lesson to critics of parents who are now frantically seeking formula. It was wrong then to assume that women who did not breastfeed were selfish or shirk maternal duties, just as it is wrong now. There was no idyllic American past in which every mother breastfed effortlessly, just as not everyone can breastfeed effortlessly now. These erroneous assumptions wrongly call into question the love of parents for their children. Worse, much like popular misconceptions of the 17th and 18th centuries, these critics undermine women’s bodily autonomy by cruelly assuming they don’t know – or care – what’s best for them. themselves or their children.