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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cultural Shifts in Breastfeeding Trends

In light of FaceBook's recent take-down of pro-breastfeeding content, I wanted to post some historical photos of women breastfeeding - namely in public places with other people around - to illustrate that not long ago, breastfeeding was considered a normal, healthy practice.

(These photos are in addition to the ones I have posted on my fan page as part of the "Girls on Film: Breastfeeding Through the Lens" series. To see it, click here.)

A nurse stocks the refrigerator with infant
formula made with PET brand evaporated
milk. From
Jennifer James of posted an interesting array of old photos of women breastfeeding. Many of them take place in public settings, in the company of friends, family and strangers. Among them are pictures of hospital staff stocking refrigerators with infant formula, and James notes that the rates of breastfeeding began to decline sometime in the 1930s. "It all started in the hospitals with their insistence that mothers did no[t] instinctively know how to care for their own babies," James writes. She adds that PET brand evaporated milk was being marketed heavily to hospitals in order to make the formula, much like formula brands are hawked today. 

During the shift from home birth to hospital birth, we already know that your finances often determined where you gave birth. Poorer people still tended to give birth at home and were thus more likely to breastfeed. Those with enough money to do so began having their babies in hospitals, where formula feeding was more encouraged. Because of companies that marketed evaporated milk to prepare formula, I'm sure that's where the connection that James makes comes in: We can tell mothers they don't know enough about feeding their babies, when in reality we just want to tout our product as being 'superior' to breastmilk.

A migrant worker living in
Depression-era squalor. 
Because of the changing cultural (and economic tides), I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that initially breastfeeding was thought - much like having an unmedicated birth - to be something only the 'poor people' did. James makes this point in the following caption featuring a woman photographed by famous Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange.

James writes: "I believe there was a brief window in history where poor, rural mothers were afforded a level of breastfeeding freedom that their city-dwelling cousins didn’t have. Indeed, this was before the milk industry rushed in and changed infant feeding habits for mothers all across the country."

Perhaps the most famous photograph that Lange took was that of migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven and considered an "iconic image of the Great Depression." However, other images from that same photo session reveal the mother breastfeeding one of her children.
Later Thompson and her family revealed how embarrassed by the images - and their poverty - that they were. (They never received any royalties from the image that Lange took, nor did they even know that their mother was the model for the well-known print until nearly 40 years after its release.) While the idea that formula companies were to blame for aggressively marketing their product and essentially destroying breastfeeding relationships in women, their poorer counterparts had no choice but to breastfeed. In one piece I read, Thompson replied that because of their poverty, they "couldn't afford not to."  

In my family, it's written in my grandfather's baby book (born in 1927) that he was breastfed for a year. By the time my mom was born in 1948, her mother nursed neither of her two children. Judging from the stories I hear from other women, it seems like there is a persistent attitude of "You can't nurse your child,"  which translates into "So you shouldn't bother," that carried on well into the 1970s. A friend's mother told how she was given hormones, much to her dismay, to prevent milk from coming in (a common practice, often done without the mother's knowledge). Another woman, who had five children during the mid-1950s and 60s, never nursed any of them because she "couldn't." I never asked why.

In this photo from James' blog post, you see a child in a "Skinner box," a contraption designed to help in raising the child with a temperature-controlled, humidity regulated box. Aside from that - the sight of which no doubt makes attachment-parenting advocates cringe - is the image of the baby with a bottle in its mouth. We've moved on from the active role of nursing to the idea of propping the baby's bottle in his mouth so we as parents can move on to more important tasks.

This photo reminds me of my mom, who was about the same age as this baby and often left in her crib at night with a bottle in her mouth. As a result, she has had a lifetime of dental problems.

The image of the Skinner box and the ideas behind it remind me of the technology-driven 1950s, where inventions were cropping up to make our everyday lives easier. While babies who were "raised" in Skinner boxes were not kept in them 24/7, there still was this idea of separation from mother and child when it came to parenting, that I think gave way to the idea that touching, loving, coddling and nurturing your child was passe and spoiled kids.  Like some people think today, the idea of formula feeding no doubt seemed more appealing because you could multi-task - and it's just too much of a pain in the ass to have to feed your child while shopping, or out and about, under the watchful eye of those who think breastfeeding in public is "gross." (I've actually heard women say this was a major reason why they chose not to breastfeed, because of what other people thought about it.)

Despite my own mother not being breastfed, my mom nursed me for four months. I asked her once why she stopped, and she said it seemed like I wasn't getting enough. I'll have to ask her sometime if she remembers any aggressive formula marketing that seemed to make mothers feel like they were broken or inadequate, or tout their product like a miracle food that could eclipse Nature's own. Interestingly enough, breastfeeding was not something mom and I talked much about, but I was adamant about nursing my child when I became pregnant.

Fast forward to the counter-cultural revolution. While there has been a resurgence of natural birth and breastfeeding movements since the 1970s, the idea that "breast = sex toy" remains. A lot of people blame the formula industry for increasingly aggressive tactics, which plays a large role. But I think with the more open sexual culture, the more normalized the idea that breasts were for pleasure. While we've always had porn and erotica, the increase of sexual freedom and greater access to adult entertainment seems to further cement in our minds that breastfeeding is "dirty," sexual, or gross. With even greater access to porn and adult images today on the internet, as well as the problem of child pornography, breastfeeding has been the unfortunate victim of people who can't separate the two. Even my internet filter won't allow me to access a Wikipedia article on breastfeeding because it blocks it as "nudity."

The resurgence of the feminist movement likely did more to hurt than help breastfeeding, as more and more women were finding success in the workplace. Like we see today, they either couldn't or wouldn't breastfeed because of expectations about returning to work soon after childbirth, and the idea that it somehow tethers them to their children and the confines of staying at home. Some women, like Erica Jong, assert that more attachment-style parenting, breastfeeding and stay-at-home motherhood is a prison. Writer Hanna Rosin asks, "is it this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down?"

While the age-old "breast vs. bottle" debate still rages, I can't think of anything that defines me more as a woman than breastfeeding my children. 

Timeline: A Brief History
1867: The first commercial infant formula, "Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies," was introduced by German chemist Justus von Liebig
1907: The "percentage method" of infant feeding was made popular, which involved mixing "cow's milk, water, cream, and sugar or honey" in an attempt to reproduce what physicians thought breastmilk was most like. Up until this time, sanitation problems had already led to the illness and even deaths of some babies because prepared food had been mixed with contaminated water, thus necessitating another shift in feeding trends.
1920s: Evaporated milk was more widely and cheaply available, and studies suggested it was healthier than breastfeeding - even though many formula- or milk-fed infants at the time exhibited signs of scurvy, rickets and bacterial infections. The studies, apparently, "were not supported by modern research."
Late 1920s: Similac, named for "similar to lactation," was introduced. Mead Johnson invented and marketed Sobee.
1950: Over half of all babies were fed infant formula.
1956: The La Leche League is formed.
1959: Enfamil was invented by Mead Johnson, combined with "marketing campaigns that provided inexpensive formula to hospitals and pediatricians."
1970s: Over 75% of America's babies are fed infant formula.
2000s: Infant formula is heavily marketed in hospitals and doctors' offices (with free samples), despite regulations that forbid it. About 50 percent of the infant formula sold in the US is subsidized by the government for low-income mothers.  "In surveys, over 70% of large hospitals dispense infant formula to all infants, which is opposed by the AAP and in violation of the code." - Wikipedia

More links:
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sara. r. said...

Very interesting post, thanks! I didn't know where Similac got it's name; that it pretty lame, actually.

Anonymous said...

Where did you find that women were given hormones to stop milk production? I can't seem to find that anywhere, but it would work great in the paper I'm writing. Thanks!