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The Complicated History Of Breastfeeding & The Controversy It Still Feeds

Updated on June 26, 2017
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Michelle is inspired by topics that may be considered taboo in society, centering around women's issues, culture, environment, and health.

A historic portrait of breastfeeding
A historic portrait of breastfeeding | Source

With public breastfeeding still being considered a "controversy" in America during this day and age, it begs the question, "Why is breastfeeding still so taboo in our society?"

There has been a lot of chatter regarding public breastfeeding in the news and social media lately.

There has also been somewhat of an uprising of proud, breastfeeding, celebrity moms posting breastfeeding selfies of themselves on their social media sites.

Breastfeeding photos on Facebook have featured famous celebrities such as Alyssa Milano, Pink, and Blake Lively, just to name a few.

It's no coincidence that celebrity moms are posting breastfeeding selfies. It's a reaction to the continual scrutiny - we as a society - have been administering to breastfeeding in general.

We are human animals that produce milk to nourish our children. Sometimes this function is practiced in the company of other people because a child needs to be fed. Other people may happen to be in the general vicinity when this happens. People should understand that. End of story? Nope.

In Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures, women always breastfed their children until certain members of royal families decided that the practice of breastfeeding was too common.

Breastfeeding, one of the most natural, essential acts in life...
Breastfeeding, one of the most natural, essential acts in life... | Source

The Breastfeeding Taboo & History

It's always been baffling as to why many people seem to have an aversion to seeing mothers breastfeed. Is it the breasts themselves?

In the United States breast obsession, in general, is rampant and even just seeing a nipple come out by accident can set off a firestorm of controversy.

But then, what about the hundreds of thousands of readily available strip clubs and online pornography sites?

The pornography business alone is at least a billion dollar industry.

In such a breast-obsessed culture as the united States, why is the act of breastfeeding, public or otherwise, such a touchy subject?

The distaste over breastfeeding actually goes back a very long time and has a history in other countries as well.

In Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures, women always breastfed their children until certain members of royal families decided that the practice of breastfeeding was too common.

This brought about the idea of wet nurses, who were women already lactating who could perform the task of breastfeeding another woman's child.

This trend increased over time and gained popularity in Western Europe with the nobility.

Breastfeeding your own child became something only lower class mothers performed, and this warped concept maintained popularity all the way through until the 1960s.

If a new mother is not educated on the practice of breastfeeding and knows nothing about it, because perhaps no other women in her family breastfed, then why wouldn't she choose formula instead without even attempting to breastfeed?

Alyssa Milano's breastfeeding selfie
Alyssa Milano's breastfeeding selfie | Source

The Trials Of Breast Milk

In the late 1800s, with the introduction of natural sciences, many women in Europe were told they needed to breastfeed their own children again.

This announcement was due to the high mortality rates among newborns.

The government in Europe was concerned and wanted to make sure their future workforce remained strong in numbers, so they launched a full smear campaign against wet nurses.

Many wet nurses were outcast for being failures, and many of them were said to have bad eating habits, or they drank too much, hence feeding the babies inadequate milk. Then came the formula.

By 1870, Henri Nestle had developed an infant formula made of Malt, sugar, cow's milk, and wheat flour.

The formula was selling for 50 cents a bottle in the United States at that time. Higher class women could afford this, and again, breastfeeding became something only lower class, uneducated women did.

Now, there is definitely a difference between not wanting to breastfeed your child and not being able to physically do it, no matter how hard you try. In this day and age it is considered a woman's personal choice whether or not she wants to breastfeed her baby, and in modern hospitals today it is now highly encouraged.

It was not always so, and there has only recently been a kind of backlash towards the formula industry for their aggressive campaigns, and towards hospitals for offering samples of specific formulas rather than trying to coach and encourage a new mother to breastfeed.

If a new mother is not educated on the practice of breastfeeding and knows nothing about it, because perhaps no other women in her family breastfed, then why wouldn't she choose formula instead without even attempting to breastfeed?

In fact, due to the decrease in breastfeeding from the late 1860s to the 1960s, many parents were not able to look to their elders for advice on breastfeeding, hence nonprofit organizations like La Leche League, who help give information on breastfeeding.

It makes sense that if your mother and her mother before her did not breastfeed for whatever reason, that you would just not have that as part of your parenting culture. Most culture is passed down through generations.

Glamorous images of breastfeeding in 2015
Glamorous images of breastfeeding in 2015 | Source

Well-known stores - such as Target - had a scandal on its hands recently with their breastfeeding policies, and they have since changed their tune after mothers protested across the nation.

Breastfeeding and The Modern Woman

In Japan, traditionally women would have home births and breastfeed their babies.

After World War ll, when Western medicine was introduced there, Japanese women started giving birth in hospitals.

Their babies were taken away from them and fed formula right after the birth.

Japan has had a breastfeeding revolution of sorts in recent history as well, with the government encouraging women to breastfeed again.

There is no doubt that breast milk is healthy for babies. Some mothers are just not physically able to do it, even though they try very hard. There are numerous reasons for not physically being able to breastfeed a child. More women in the workplace is a massive factor in discouraging breastfeeding as well.

The United States is well behind the times, as far as giving women who work, longer maternity leave so they can bond and attempt to breastfeed their babies. Many working women struggle to somehow both breastfeed and be at work while trying desperately to pump milk for later use.

Many companies have only recently become more adapted to allowing breastfeeding mothers to pump their milk in the workplace.

Protesting the right to breastfeed
Protesting the right to breastfeed | Source

There has even been a divide among women themselves, fighting one another over who is breastfeeding, and who is not.

Many women who exclusively breastfed their babies have spread the word that supplementing your baby with formula is forbidden and you will never be successful at breastfeeding if you supplement.

This is not necessarily true, but it's this kind of misinformation that both confuses and frightens new mothers into premature breastfeeding failure.

You can supplement with formula if needed and breastfeed at the same time, depending on your individual situation.

When fed information based on the personal agendas or experiences of others, it's bound to cause confusion.

Since the 1970s there has been a new movement on the rise to bring breastfeeding back, and normalize it, especially here in the United States. With the boom of social media, modern celebrity mothers such as Gisele Bundchen, Olivia Wilde, and Alyssa Milano have proudly shared their breastfeeding photos all over the internet.

The photos are not just personal shares, they are defiant statements that it's okay to breastfeed your child. It is very sad, that such a natural way of feeding your own young has had to make such a forceful comeback in order to make it a "normal" thing.

Gisele Bundchen
Gisele Bundchen | Source

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Fight For Your Right To Feed

In the last decade, there have been numerous breastfeeding scandals due to mothers trying to breastfeed in public.

In some ways, the right to publicly breastfeed has become akin to a type of civil rights movement for mothers.

In fact, by 2006, only 36 U.S states legally protected women who wanted to breastfeed in public.

The battle is still going on today with internet posts by new mothers going viral for being told they cannot breastfeed in public places.

Well known stores - such as Target - had a scandal on its hands recently with their breastfeeding policies, and they have since changed their tune after mothers protested across the nation.

It seems as though, in the United States, there is the breast obsession and a breast milk revulsion. The breast is great when it's out in a strip club, but not in a child's mouth for milk. Looking back through history, discovering how attitudes changed regarding breastfeeding, this is actually not a new issue.

As with today, the masses can be swayed by an idea of what's acceptable and what's not and run with it.

The main takeaway, is that when a natural fluid flows from your own breast and has been specially designed for your body to nourish your child, try and use it. If it doesn't work out for you, then move on. If some people think it's a disgusting practice, then that's their issue, and that attitude was probably passed down through generations.

Hopefully, with some practice, the concept of breastfeeding goes back to being a normal, natural thing to see. Perhaps this strange breast fascination/aversion will shed its skin in our near future. Where there's milk, there's always hope.

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