History of Breast Milk substitute and How they came about
Throughout history, every generation has needed to develop an alternative to breastfeeding, either because a mother had insufficient milk or chose not to breast feed. Scientific and historical literature tells us of centuries-old efforts to satisfy an infant’s nutritional needs and to replicate the composition and benefits of breast milk.
In prehistoric cultures, infant mortality was high. Like other mammals, only the hardest of infant, nursed by their mothers, survived. In ancient cultures, the first doctors encouraged breast feeding. If for some reason, the mother could not nurse, wet-nursing- substituting lactating adult women for the birth mother- was recommended for those who could afford it. Ancient art shows us that those who could not afford a wet nurse relied on the milk of domestic animals, such as donkeys, camel and goats. Clay feeding vessels, designed to transfer the milk from the animal to the baby, have been found in ancient tombs and ruins. Historians of spartan times reported that succession to the throne was interrupted and given to a younger son because he was breastfed by his mother and his older brother was wet-nursed.
Little about infant feeding was documented between ancient times and the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, wet nursing was the choice for a mother who could not nurse. One pediatric article on breast feeding describes the characteristics of a good wet nurse as well as information on hiccups, diarrhea and vomiting. In the late 1500s, scientists detailed the therapeutic values of human milk not only for infants, but also for aging men and women, They also recommended the use of ass’ milk as a breast- milk substitute, should a mother need it. If the baby could not be nursed, liquid food made of diluted honey mixed with cereal flour or breadcrumbs was poured through a hollow cow’s horn. However, most efforts to replace breast feeding were unsuccessful because of the infant’s intolerance or to bacterial contamination.
In eighteenth century Europe, unsanitary conditions were the greatest hazard for mothers or the improper preparation of breast milk alternatives was common. Documents from that time indicate that wealthy English women chose not to nurse their infants because they thought breast-feeding aged them and ruined their figures. And, even though breast feeding had been identified as a form of birth control, wealthy women preferred to bottle or hand feed, often having 12 to 20 babies instead.
In France, during the time of Louise the XVI and Napoleon, breast feeding- especially by the wealthy- was regarded as bourgeois and simply not done. Wet nursing, as well as animal milk and pap feeding, were the norm. French founding homes staffed by wet nurses, which carefully regulated their diets and their activities, ensured that infants received proper nutrition.
In the 1800s, breast feeding again became popular. For those who required an alternative, babies were fed goat or donkey milk, but this had its own drawbacks- high protein and few of the essential trace elements, plus the risk of infection from contamination. Cow’s milk- treated with additives (fat, sugar, lime water and cream) to make it more digestible and then diluted- became a common, low cost alternative. Though often used, it was not recommended because it was low protein, although thanks to the work of Louise Pasteur and Robert Koch, who discovered how to eliminate pathogenic bacteria, contamination was no longer an issue.
Urbanization and technological advances made breast-feeding less popular during the 20th century. The extended family became less of a support, and as women left the home and entered the workplace in record numbers, they tended to see breast feeding as an unnecessary burden. During the first half of the 20th century, scientists and physicians began in earnest to elucidate in detail the composition of mother’s milk and looking for ways of imitating it in such a way that substitutes would match more or less its digestibility and nutrient content. Success was rather slow at the beginning, however. But thanks to technological progress most manufacturers marketed bacteriologically safe and nutritionally acceptable infant foods in a powdered form already before the second world war.
The most significant breakthrough in artificial feeding of infants have happened in the second half of the 20th century. American, Swiss and Japanese food technologists, together with pediatricians and chemists, succeeded in matching the essential nutrients of mother’s milk in formula, making it usable from the first day of a baby’s life. Improvements in the composition of infant formula, along with better sanitary conditions and standards of living helped to decrease mortality of infants who were not breastfed from around 80% to less than 2%
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