Swehl’s Brandi Jordan, is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Pediatric Sleep Specialist, Newborn Care Specialist, and Postpartum Doula to clients like Mandy Moore. She is the founder of The Cradle Company and the National Association of Birth Workers of Color. She holds a BA in Child Development and a Master’s of Social Work from USC.
Breastfeeding is as old as time. However, the pendulum often swings to it being in and out of fashion. As early as the 16th century, philosophers and doctors began emphasizing the emotional benefits of a mother breastfeeding her child herself—when possible. Even today, the possibility of breastfeeding relies heavily on monetary and societal factors that are out of a parent’s control in many cases. In honor of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and more specifically, Black Breastfeeding Week (August 25-31), we’re discussing the (long!) history and social implications of feeding: exclusive breastfeeding, bottle feeding and formula. Let’s dig in!
(P.S. if you want to watch an awesome video version of this, check out Brandi’s Instagram.)
Wet nursing (i.e., breastfeeding someone else’s child) began as a necessary alternative when a mother could not feed her newborn. Without modern resources, many new mothers fell sick or died during childbirth, leaving those in their family or village who were already nursing to take on that responsibility to ensure the baby could survive.
In the 1800s, wet nursing became one of choice, where families with financial means would outsource the feeding of their children by employing poor women, indentured servants, or worse, in America, enslaved Black women. Slavery-based wet nursing, where no money was exchanged, also meant that black babies did not thrive, as they got whatever milk was left over (if any). This necessitated enslaved people to learn to make synthetic milk for their babies, and with the lack of resources, it was not the quality that infants required.
Despite its common reputation, wet nursing was a visible occupation until the 1920s in the United States. Hospitals had wings of wet nurses, and they were in high demand. Unfortunately, wet nurses were usually single women who’d been abandoned by the father of their children. The cycle continued if they went to work for a private family, leaving their own child to be relegated to a foundling home. Again, we see babies from affluent families thriving here.
Women got one step closer to having more autonomy while feeding their young children in 1854 when the first patent for a manual breast pump was filed. These first pumps were relegated to very sick or premature infants in the hospital setting but kicked into motion alternatives.
Enter formula: Formula was invented a few years later, in the 1860s, and began to be mass marketed; its development was expedited by the end of slavery, and social norms around wet nursing shifted to a negative view of the practice. When Similac was introduced in the 1920s with “a composition closer to breast milk,” formula truly took off while breastfeeding rates descended rapidly.
As doctors suggested formula as the better way to feed your baby, a class system around infant feeding began: the wealthy accessed formula, and those less fortunate were forced to breastfeed, creating a stigma that breastfeeding signified low class. This was the start of breastfeeding being out of style for much of the century.
Free The Nipple
This all changed in the late 1970s when world leaders boycotted Nestle, who at the time was the largest producer of formula, due to a steep rise in infant mortality rates pointing to babies being fed with contaminated water, mainly due to how the formula was marketed to poor women. At this same time, the Hippie Movement was in full swing; women wanted to reclaim their bodies, their sexuality, and their freedom by reimagining how they would birth their babies. A rise in home births and a renewed connection to breastfeeding began and is the start of breastfeeding as we see it today.
Despite breastfeeding trends rising, there was still a conflict for women who wanted to be in the workforce, which at that time did not support breastfeeding mothers. This all started to change in 1991 when Medela sold the first hospital-grade pump for home use, making it possible for more women to go to the office and breastfeed, specifically those who worked in corporate settings. At this point, we start seeing for the first time that more affluent women and families began breastfeeding than socioeconomically disadvantaged due to lack of resources and support‚a trend that persists today.
In the past 20+ years, we have had some policy-related shifts in feeding. In 2010, Federal Fair Labor Standards required employers by law to provide a private space for lactation (that is not a bathroom) for hourly employees, which was a great step forward toward bridging the socioeconomic gap in infant feeding. In 2018, Utah and Idaho (finally!) legalized breastfeeding in public, making it legal in all 50 states; however, the shame and stigma of breastfeeding in public persists.
It is so important to look back so we can move forward. The one constant in breastfeeding’s modern history is that affluent women have options, while women of color or any Black woman, regardless of socioeconomic status, lack them. We’ve done a complete 360 socially on what and who gets to breastfeed, and again, babies of color do not reap the benefits, primarily due to lack of access, time, and resources.
There is so much to be done to bring equity to the space.