Breast-feeding in the 18-20th centuries

“Nursing of their children is a natural duty; and because it is so, of a more necessary and indispensable obligation, than any positive precept of revealed religion; and that the general neglect of it is one of the great and crying sins of this age and nation. It is a sort of exposing children, which frequently, in the consequence of it, is little better than laying them in the streets.”

Thus proclaimed the author of A Ladies Dispensatory arguing that breast feeding is the prime duty of a mother, and that to neglect it is a great sin. Indeed, neglecting this great duty is considered “little better” than laying the child out in the street to die.

The Young Mother by Charles West Cope Great Britain 1845 Victorian and Albert Museum
The Young Mother by Charles West Cope, 1845 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

This quote is part of a discourse which arose in the end of the 18th century which emphasized the importance of breast-feeding. Up until this point, wet-nursing had been the preferred choice for nourishing infants. Mothers in Europe frequently delegated this task to wet-nurses in the countryside, where the children were nourished and raised for the first couple months of their lives. This was not an act restricted to the wealthy, infants were also sent by farmers, clergy, and artisans.

At the end of the 18th century a shift took place – women were being pushed to breast-feed their own children and cease the practice of hiring a wet-nurse. The push for this change was significant enough for some European countries to attempt to legislate the practice. This was the case in France and Germany where doctors advocated for laws to force women to nurse their own infants. What was the cause for this significant transition? Four general observations can be made:

  1. Wet-nursing was believed to be the cause of a high degree of infant mortality in the 18th century. This is unsurprising, since the wet-nurses tended to come from the lowest social stratum; women who themselves were unhealthy were producing the milk to feed the middle and upper-classes.
  2. Arguments were rising that breast-feeding was part and parcel of natural reproduction. To avoid this obligation was not only dangerous for the infant, but also for the mother. In the late 18th century, physicians were attributing some instances of female mania with issues concerning breast milk. John Ferrier, a physician at Manchester Asylum, argued that hysteria was caused by an excess breastmilk converting to the head, leading to hysteria and insanity. In a culture and era when “excess” was viewed as detrimental to health, this is another unsurprising argument.
  3. In tandem with the previous point, breast-feeding was also identified as having a special spiritual benefit to families in which it was practiced. William Buchan, in his Advice to Mothers on the Subject of their Own Health argued that breast-feeding will allow the mother to have a more speedy recovery, ensure continuing good health, allow her to bear more children,  and sustain a happy marriage. In summary, he believed

“If mothers should again condescend to nurse their children, manners would form themselves, the sentiments of nature would revive in their hearts, the state would be re-peopled and everything would be re-united.”

  1. The late 18th and early 19th century saw a shift in the family; childhood became identified as a separate phase from adulthood, one that ought to be nourished and enjoyed. Indeed, family life became more child-centred, and breast-feeding was the epicentre of this focus- for infanthood. Breast-feeding became seen as the foremost manner of creating a bond between mothers and their children, a true opportunity for the mother to engage in dutiful sacrifice for the good of her child.
The Fashionable Mama or the Convenience of Modern Dross New York Public Library
The Fashionable Mama -or- the Convenience of Modern Dross (New York Public Library)

As a result of these new views, an immense pressure was placed on women to breast-feed. Buchan suggested that women who were not happy to discharge their breast-feeding duties had “no right to become a wife.” Even 18th century feminists agreed with this view – Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women also urged breast-feeding. The author of A Ladies Dispensatory may have been hyperbolic in the assertion quoted above, but it may not have seemed far from the truth given the pressures placed on women in this era.

By the end of the 19th century, the methodology of infant-feeding shifted again, with the rise of manufactured formula. Originally developed as an option for infants homed in institutions, it proliferated and became the preferred choice for the higher classes. Indeed, in the early 20th century breast-feeding was increasingly identified as a lower class practice. In the 1920s, with the development of “scientific motherhood” mothers were increasingly advised to formula-feed their infants rather than offer breast milk. Notably, 1930s statistics do demonstrate that over 70% of infants were still breast-fed. However, this was more likely due to the expense of formula and the economic hardship caused by the Great Depression. As these economic burdens receded, the number of breast-feeding mothers dropped to 50%, and by the mid-1970s these mothers were in the minority.

Johann Friedrich August Tischbein - BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais 1795-1800
Johann Friedrich August Tischbein 1795-1800 (Grand Palais)

The late 20th century saw a rise, once again, of increasing pressure on mothers to breast-feed their infants. Scientific Journalist Natalie Angier suggests this renewed push towards the breast bears a significant resemblance towards the tones taken in the late 18th century Europe, when some advocated for mothers to be forcibly breast-fed. Of course, this does not become the case, as numerous mothers did continue to choose to formula-feed their children. Angier notes that her own mother-in-law chose to formula feed because “she didn’t want to feel like a pair of udders.” Moreover, numerous women have resorted to bottle-feeding due to unbearable difficulty and pain caused by attempts at breast-feeding.

Nevertheless, the pressure was still felt, and widely so. A feminist magazine endured a brief controversy in the 1990s when they published a short story about the difficult pressures of breast-feeding. This short story, written by Hiromi Goto, tells the tale of a mother who struggled tremendously with breast-feeding. Despite numerous attempts, endless pain, and engorged nipples, her mother-in-law and husband pressured her to continue trying. Her husband even stated that the would “do it himself” if it were possible. One night, this suffering mother awoke at 3am to a hungry infant. In complete despair, she removed her breasts with a knife, gave them to her husband, and fell into a peaceful sleep.

This gruesome story wreaked havoc amongst the subscribers to this magazine, many of whom threatened cancellation. Some mothers wrote to the editor arguing that while they supported the right for women to choose how they feed their children, this decision must be made in light of all available information. Angier concluded that the prevailing view was that a mother could make her own decision on these issues, “as long as she makes the right choice – that is, to breast-feed indefinitely and at any cost.”


A Ladies Dispensatory. (1770).

Angier, N. (2014). Women: an intimate geography. London: Virago.

Buchan, W. and Scott, R. (1815). Advice to mothers, on the subject of their own health. New-York: Published by Richard Scott, 276 Pearl-street.

Coleman, M., Ganong, L. and Warzinik, K. (2007). Family life in 20th-century America. Westport, Connecticut : Greenwood Press.

Lauwers, J. and Swisher, A. (2005). Counselling the Nursing Mother. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones and Bartlett.

Schiebinger, L. (2010). Nature’s body. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Stephanson, R. and Wagner, D. (2015). The secrets of generation. Reproduction in the long eighteenth century. North York: University of Toronto Press.

Tosh, J. (2007). A man’s place. New Haven [u.a.]: Yale University Press.

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