At first glance, the acute shortage of baby formula seems like an advertisement for breast-feeding. If only women did what came naturally, the thinking might go, maybe there wouldn’t be a problem at all.
This argument would draw on evidence that multinational corporations like Nestle did much to persuade women to give up breast-feeding in favor of formula. Their 20th-century marketing campaigns ended in consumer boycotts and public disgrace for the formula makers and contributed to the deaths of infants.
But this shameful episode obscures an earlier, more complicated history. The business of nursing and sustaining newborns has long been far more vexed than advocates of either breast-feeding or formula-feeding would have us believe.
In a perfect world, babies would be breast-fed. The health benefits of human breast milk are well documented. But not all babies or mothers find breast-feeding simple to master. Yes, it’s natural. Nonetheless, parents have pursued alternatives for thousands of years.
In some cases, breast-feeding didn’t come naturally. In ancient times, as now, some infants failed to latch, leaving desperate parents scrambling. In other cases, mothers came out of childbirth with their health compromised as they recovered from infections like puerperal fever, which often suppressed milk production.
Before the advent of modern medicine, a staggering number of women died in childbirth. Conservative estimates suggest that 1 out of every 40 births ended in the death of the mother in antiquity, a figure that largely held constant through the 18th century. Absent an alternative source of nourishment, the baby would perish as well.
One solution, which dated back to the domestication of animals, involved feeding infants milk from cows, horses, sheep, goats and even pigs. Sometimes, parents put the baby at the animal’s teat; more often, they poured the milk into clay containers, often designed to resemble an animal, that allowed infants to sip the substitute.