History of Infant Feeding

Women in Hong Kong rallied to donate breast milk to a four-month-old baby whose mother was hospitalised with COVID-19

Infant feeding is something that we have taken for granted today. The availability of nutritious and instant baby formulas in containers made by multinationals has caused many to forget that there is a long history behind infant feeding. Here is a very detailed look at the history of infants’ feeding and its evolution until the modern age. 

The Ancient Days of Wet Nursing

A wet nurse is a woman who does the job of breastfeeding the child of another. The concept of wet nursing has been in existence since as far back as 2000BC and continued until as recently as the 20th century. All through this era, wet nursing transformed from an option of need (around 2000 BC) into a possibility of choice around 950 BC to 1800 AD. 

Wet nursing was a well-respected profession, and there were even business contracts and regulations put in place by the authorities. Opposition came in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but that did not stop the process. Its influence would not until the introduction of the feeding bottle in the 19th century. The bottle’s coming proved to be a fatal blow to wet-nursing, and it swiftly became extinct as a profession. 

Wet nursing had become widespread in those times because breastfeeding by the mother was not always a realistic option as many mothers could not produce milk on their own. Other mothers had lost their lives during childbirth. Records from ancient Egypt, Greek, and Roman empires contain extensive documentation of the wet nurses and their significance. 

Even though wet nursing remained predominant until the end of the 1900s, natural breastfeeding by the child’s mother was also a viable option and many adopted it.

The Advent of the Feeding Bottle 

It is interesting to note that crude and ancient feeding bottles made of clay have been discovered dating back to thousands of years BC. However, such crude feeding bottles were not neat and efficient enough. Modern feeding bottles would not trend until the era of the Industrial Revolution. 

Hugh Smith, a doctor working at the Middlesex Hospital in London, invented the pewter bubby-pot in 1770. This device looked like a miniature coffeepot, but its neck popped out from beneath the pot. The spout had about four holes in it, and a piece of fabric was placed for the baby to suck the milk from. Sponges and even rags were used to act as the nipple or teat. 

Pap boat was another feeding tool that was common in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. It was used in the feeding of pap and panada to infants. These served as supplements to animal milk. The pap boat came with its spoon complete with a hollow stem through which the panada or pap can flow down the baby’s throat. The pap boat had the advantage of allowing the child to get larger quantities of food faster than breastfeeding. 

The main problem with the teats, pap boats and feeding bottles of the 16th to the 18th centuries was that it was tough to keep them clean. This led to the accumulation of microorganisms like bacteria, which caused diseases for infants. This was so serious that at the beginning of the 19th century, the application of unhygienic feeding devices alongside the inability to store milk properly caused the deaths of more than 30% of all infants below 12 months who were fed using artificial means. 

It would not be until the middle of the 19th century that real transformation would come to the production and development of the feeding bottle and the nipple too. Proper changes came with glass, which signified the start of the modern feeding bottle era as we know it. 

The first set of modern feeding bottles for infants appeared in France in 1851. They came with cork nipples alongside ivory pins that regulated flow. 1896 saw England coming with its feeding bottle shaped like a bottle. In 1845, the Indian subcontinent came up with the rubber nipple and trended with improvement until the 20th century. 

The coming of the modern feeding bottle and nipple with the abundance of animal milk and the decline of wet nursing promoted artificial feeding. The medical world thus redirected its focus on infant nutrition as against other alternative sources of milk. 

Introduction of Formula Use and the Modern Era

Historical records indicate that humans have been using milk from animals to feed infants since 2000 BC. Over time, alternative milk options changed to become the synthetic infant formulas that we now use today across the globe. The widespread acceptance of artificial feeding products for infants came about due to the massive advertising campaigns launched by the brands producing them. 

This led to a massive uptick in the use of synthetic infant feeding formulas even though some researchers have cried out that it is hurting exclusive breastfeeding. That said, the formula feeding of babies today is top-notch when it comes to safety. It is a radical departure from the days of the unsanitary clay bottles. However, scientists agree unanimously that breast milk remains the best source of nutrition for infants. 

The producers of infant feeding formulas in the 21st century have done an excellent job of ensuring safety and quality during production. The production stages include mixing of the ingredients, pasteurization, homogenization, standardization, packaging, heat treatment or sterilization, and quality checks. There is also fortification with the needed vitamins and minerals, which ensure the babies get the best. 

In recent times, newer ingredients like probiotics and prebiotics have been introduced to infant feeding formulas. There are also plans in the future for the inclusion of other substances like lactoferrin, fatty acid, and lysozyme, all of which are geared toward ensuring optimal development for the babies. Infant feeding among humans has indeed come a long way – from clay bottles to wet nurses and now super fortified milk formulas. 

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