Criticizing the choices a woman makes and surmising that said action is directly responsible for society’s woes is a common refrain throughout history. One of the most persistent themes of attack is on the method she chooses to feed her child. In the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, according to American culture scholar M. Michelle Jarrett, the public’s ire was directed at women who didn’t breastfeed their babies. It was, they said, nothing less than “an act of flagrant rebellion against nature.”
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, bottle-feeding, also known as “hand-raising,” experienced a bump in popularity. The relative availability of “sucking bottles” and “bubby cups,” bottles made of glass or ceramic topped with a silver nippleguard and vented nipple, made feeding by hand easier and more convenient.
The backlash from (mainly male) physicians and other parenting “experts” was almost immediate. It seems as if there was no social ill that couldn’t be blamed on mothers who failed to breastfeed their babies. Early infant mortality, childhood disease and illness, “unhappy homes, the breakdown of the family, and marital discord” were all said to be the result of women abdicating their natural duties in favor of bottle-feeding.
Jarrett notes that early critics of bottle feeding “argued that the fate of society depended on the efforts of the nation’s mothers.” Breastfeeding, they claimed, was a woman’s maternal, moral, and patriotic duty.
Conversely, breastfed infants were compared to mythological figures. Scottish physician Dr. William Buchan invoked the lore of Hercules, writing that the breastfed baby would “have force sufficient to strangle in his cradle any serpents that might assail him.”
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Bottle feeding did come with some risk, primarily because early bottle-feeders were difficult to clean and could harbor bacteria. But, then as now, there were women who couldn’t breastfeed or for whom breastfeeding was inconvenient. The latter shouldn’t be brushed off considering that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century a woman spent up to two-thirds of her childbearing years pregnant or with an infant, and breastfeeding would compound her confinement even more.
There was always the wet nurse, a substitute for the mother’s breast that critics agreed was far more preferable than the bottle. But this would have only been an option for wealthy families. And there were always concerns about finding the right kind of woman to wet nurse. She not only had to be robust and healthy but also needed to be of an unimpeachable moral character, since at the time it was also a commonly-held belief that any number of afflictions or personal shortcomings, including a poor temperament or a weak constitution, could be passed to the child via breastmilk.
The invention in 1845 of the india rubber nipple made bottle feeding safer and more sanitary. By the mid-twentieth century, breastfeeding would go entirely out of vogue. It wasn’t the first time that the public’s attitude regarding the “correct” way to feed an infant would do an about-face, and it wouldn’t be the last.