Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Perfect Food: Part 3a

For Nigel …

DISCLAIMER:  This post is NOT about mothers who physically or physiologically cannot nurse because of a medical or other condition. They are a special case, and are the exact reason there needs to be a healthful alternative to breastmilk for infants (though I’d prefer to see more milk banks, instead of formula companies, to help children of mother’s who cannot nurse).

A Brief History of Formula:

All of the information I am about to lay out here was gathered from the sources at the end of this post .  Check them out for yourselves.  You’ll learn a lot more than I’m prepared to educate you here.

Before we can get into the history of formula, we need to look at wet nursing, as this was the viable option for mothers who couldn't nurse prior to the invention of baby formula.  The history of wet nursing is probably as old as nursing itself, in fact.  Surely, in all cultures across all time there were women who for some reason or another (more often than not that reason being they died during childbirth) could not nurse their own offspring.  Other women in the tribe or community would have stepped in to ensure the child’s survival.  It’s good to be part of a tribe, yes?  According to sources, many ancient cultures, including Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, feature myths involving superhuman, supernatural, and even animal wet nurses.  It appears that later, in the 17th and 18th century Europe, wet nursing was commonplace.  One can speculate (though if one had more time one would actually do more research and wouldn’t need to speculate) that if wet nursing was “commonplace” during this time period, the employment of wet nurses expanded beyond helping out mothers who couldn’t physiologically nurse to allowing mothers who did not want to nurse another option.  Interestingly, along with wet nursing, there was also the use of cross-nursing or co-nursing, where lactating mothers would nurse each others babies. 

While researching wet nursing, I found a little nugget from The Cambridge Companion to Rousseau, “The divided self is another concept common to Pascal and Rousseau … Rousseau’s divisions flow from the contrast between the amour de soi (love of self) that is naturally given to us and the amour-propre (selfishness) into which our natural drives are transformed by society.  Humans in the state of nature are similar to other animals insofar as they express love of themselves by seeking to avoid pain and to safeguard their well-being.  They are not selfish, however; they do not compare themselves with other persons, they do not suffer from envy or petty pride.  On the contrary, they instinctually empathize with others who suffer, pity being one of the few innate traits of human nature.  Contemporary evidence of how love of self combines with concern for others may be seen in the practice of breast-feeding, which is why Rousseau did his best – and with some success – to convince aristocratic women to stop using wet nurses.  The mother acts as agent of our not entirely lost natural selves when she breast-feeds her child; she acts as the agent of our socially acquired selves when, some years later, she sends her offspring into the world with the imperative, ‘Achieve.’  Out of love the mother breast-feeds, out of love she wishes her maturing child social success – but this second love is no longer the expression of nature.”   Two things jumped out at me when reading this: (1) I need to start reading more Rousseau – even though French people scare me, and (2) There has been a long standing dichotomy between the natural self and the cultural self, and it’s about damn time we do more contemplation on the implications of this chasm of thought for humanity.

Throughout history, mothers who did not breastfeed and did not use a wet nurse, practiced what was called “dry nursing,” feeding their babies prepared food.  This practice evolved to include feeding babies mixtures based on animal milk (primarily goat, cow and sheep milk).  During the 19th century, dry nursing grew in popularity as the prevalence of wet-nursing diminished.  As per Wikipedia, “This trend was driven by cultural changes …”  I find this to be a rather obvious observation.  These changes would must have been driven by societal forces, because mother nature herself, like my dear husband, prefers boob.  Improvements in sanitation and the development of the “India-rubber nipple” were also complicit in the transition from a nursing culture to a formula-fed one.  And it’s at this time that the wonderful world of processed, manufactured food comes into our little story.  Here’s another quote from Wiki (‘cause I’m lazy), “As early as 1846, scientists and nutritionists noted an increase in medical problems and infant mortality was associated with dry nursing.  In an attempt to improve the quality of manufactured baby foods, in 1867, Justus von Liebig (my notation: yes, his name is “lie” “big”; just sayin’) developed the world’s first commercial infant formula, Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies.  The success of this product quickly gave rise to competitors such as Mellin’s Infant Food, Ridge’s Food for Infants and Nestle’s Milk.”

It wasn’t long after the invention of these infant formulas that a large number of women decided not to nurse their babies, instead relying on the food industry to nourish their children.  By the 1930s, even many pediatricians held that formula was just as nutritious as breastmilk, and therefore advised mothers to use formula, as a more convenient and efficient means of feeing their young.  Pediatricians were not well-educated regarding breastfeeding, and relied on the information provided to them by representatives of infant manufacturers as the basis for their approach to infant feeding (reminds me of doctors who rely on pharmaceutical reps for information on new drugs, instead of diving deep into the research literature and figuring things out for themselves).  Infant formula was touted as a scientific product, and doctors and mothers bought into this marketing.  And, here’s the crux.  Here’s the moment when “science” beats down “nature.”  Here’s where hubris takes hold of the human mind.  You can’t outthink or outperform nature (or millions of years of evolution).  She’s gonna kick you in the nads every time.

As a result, the incidence of breastfeeding dramatically decreased throughout the mid-twentieth century.  It took less than a 100 years to go from “commonplace” (so much so that women who couldn’t nurse employed other women to nurse in their stead) to “unscientific” and uncommon.   Many women forwent nursing for convenience, and I think this is a major motivator today.  I think women, and probably many doctors, still believe that formula is on par with breastmilk, and therefore can be used instead without even the slightest hesitation.  It’s likely not a coincidence that the use of bottle-feeding increased, as women began to enter the workforce.  And though infant formula has it’s merits and is constantly being improved upon, there are many benefits that are unique to breastfeeding.

There much more to the story, and I'll get to that in my next post.