One decision you will have to make in motherhood is whether or not to breast-feed. Until this century the majority,of mothers had little choice but to follow nature’s method of nourishing babies. Now, thanks to formula (the magic word!), the situation is quite different. The woman of today has a choice between breast-feeding or bottle feeding or a combination of both. Studies have shown that the percentage of women who breast-feed varies from region to region and according to socioeconomic class.
Over the last few decades, however, in Europe as well as America, there has been one consistent trend that has overridden the local variations. A drastic reduction in breast-feeding is reported everywhere. In just ten years, for example, the tate for the entire United States dropped by a half. A similar rate of decline has been reported in British and French regional surveys. While no final count one way or the other exists. there is reason to guess that in our western society the formula bottle may now be nourishing almost as many infants as the breast does. Yes, of course. some will say, and why not? If great-great-grandmother could have gone down the street for a six-pack of reliable canned baby formula, the switch from breastfeeding would have occurred long since.
From as far back as we have records, at least from the time of the ancient Greeks. there has been a search for an adequate substitute for a mother’s own milk. To avoid breast-feeding, women in favored social positions have hired (or bought) wet nurses to feed their babies. The wet nurse, a lactating woman with milk to spare, was a familiar figure in ancient Athens and Rome, in the London and Paris of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in our own Colonial America Her frequent appearances in the novels of Charles Dickens are a reflection of how numerous her kind must have been a hundred years ago.
Fashionable women were not the only employers of wet nurses. Mothers without milk and the guardians of infants whose mothers died in childbirth also turned to the wet nurse for help. Over the centuries, other substitutes, besides the wet nurse’s milk. were tried but with much less success. The milk of goats and cows, mixtures of honey or sugar and water, various cereals ground and stirred with fluids into pap, foods pre chewed by mothers or grandmothers—all these and more have nourished orphans, the infants of mothers without milk, or hungry babies in times of famine.
In ancient Rome a research project was subsidized by the government to develop a satisfactory substitute for mother’s milk, and the efforts of many individual physicians were applied to the problem from those days until our own time. One or two British. physicians of the last century made international reputations with the formulas they concocted for babies. Nevertheless, in spite of centuries of experimenting, development of
the satisfactory substitute for mother’s milk had to wait (or our own era. Advanced techniques in chemical analysis were required.
Respect for scientific methods had to be encouraged. When these conditions finally came about, science was able to produce an adequate formula for feeding babies. For the first time, there was a food other than mother’s milk that could be given to the average normal baby in full confidence that it would not endanger his lite. Certainly, formula feeding has fitted in well with the times. The wet nurse has disappeared from our scene. but the baby-sitter is very much in evidence.
Knowing that someone else is there to give baby his bottle, the new mother can in good conscience leave the home for longer periods of time. She may take up her social life again or even go back to her job. Baby will get his bottle just the same. He no longer requires her physical presence. Formula feeding also has had appeal in the age of technology because it seems so scientific. We have been able to prescribe not only the kinds and amounts of nutrients in the bottle but also the times of feeding. Nevertheless, it is still impossible to duplicate fresh breast milk. The current formulas come very close, but there remains a significant difference.
For instance, breast milk contains enzymes and antibodies riot found in heat-treated cow’s milk. To many parents and doctors, however, these shortcomings in the accepted formula mixtures seem less important than the positive side of the ledger. With formula the nutrients known to be of crucial importance—protein, carbohydrate. fat, certain vitamins—can be given to the baby in regulated amounts. In our technological age we insist upon measuring, weighing, sampling, charting, and wherever possible, substituting machines for human effort. Canned baby formula satisfies most of these specifications.
In thinking about our century’s startling change in the feeding of babies, there are two possible avenues of approach. One can ask why so many mothers have given up breast-feeding for bottle feeding, or one can ask why. when bottle feeding has proved satisfactory, so many mothers still persist in breast-feeding. The second approach seems to promise more interesting answers, and it is the one Newton and Newton’ have followed in their study of lactation as a phenomenon of human behavior. They find lactation sensitive to a variety of psychological influences that can be separated roughly into three classes. The first is the nursing mother’s emotions and attitudes as an individual. The second is her emotions and attitudes as a member of a social group.