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Throughout history, a mother’s decisions about breastfeeding have been influenced by social expectations and financial pressures. But has much changed over the years?
Our galaxy owes its name to a breastfeeding story. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hera woke to find Zeus’s infant son Hercules at her breast. She shoved the baby away, sending a spray of breastmilk across the sky – the Milky Way.
While some modern celebrities may be ‘too posh to push’, their ancient equivalents were probably ‘too loaded to lactate’. Ordinary Egyptian, Greek and Roman women fed their own babies, but breastfeeding was considered too common for many of the well-off. So, they employed wet nurses instead, a popular and well-paid job for women from about 2000BC to the start of the 20th century.
During the Renaissance period (approx. 1400-1600), aristocratic women rarely breastfed because it prevented them from wearing fashionable clothes, interfered with social activities, and suppressed their fertility during a time when they were expected to produce a male heir and several spares.
But some obstetricians were beginning to advocate the benefits of mothers feeding their own babies. French obstetrician, Guillemeau, argued that a mother should nurse her own child but, if she insisted on a wet nurse, she should (incredibly!) avoid hiring a redhead as their fiery temperament would harm their milk.
More than two-thirds of US mothers breastfed at the start of the 20th century, but rates dropped dramatically with the advent of aggressively marketed infant formula and a more medicalised approach to birth. By 1971, less than 25 per cent of mothers initiated breastfeeding and only 5 per cent made it to the six-month mark. Formula was also proving popular in many developing countries, despite the expense and the risks posed by contaminated water.
In the 1970s in America, special interest groups began to promote breastfeeding, resulting in its steady increase over the next 30 years. Middle-class women began to try breastfeeding and other groups followed their lead.
Both doctors and parents finally understood the value of a mother’s milk, but the gap between breastfeeding generations had consequences. New mums who wanted to breastfeed couldn’t learn from their own mums, since those new grandmothers had never breastfed their own children.
Then, governments stepped in. Viewing breastfeeding as a public health issue, they sought to support mums by improving breastfeeding support in hospitals and the community, as well as protecting the right to breastfeed in public.
Because of its many benefits, the World Health Organisation now recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Breastfeeding helps babies form a strong microbiome, enhances their immunity, and provides tailored milk that changes as they grow. It also helps mums recover from birth, may help to protect against certain diseases, and is generally freely available on demand.
In 2010, 90 per cent of Australian babies were initially breastfed, though only 15 per cent were exclusively breastfed at five months. In the UK in 2010, 81 per cent of babies were initially breastfed, 12 per cent were exclusively breastfed at four months, and 1 per cent at six months.
In the developing world, breastfeeding is slowly on the rise, up from 33 per cent in 1995 to 39 per cent in 2010. The biggest improvements were seen in West and Central Africa, where exclusive breastfeeding rates doubled from 12 per cent in 1995 to 28 per cent in 2010. Eastern and Southern Africa achieved a 10 per cent increase from 1995-2010, while South Asian rates rose 5 per cent. In East Asia and the Pacific (excluding China), rates have remained at a steady 30 per cent for two decades.
Some Indian communities consider colostrum dangerous, so they give newborns honey instead. In contrast, Mongolian culture is strongly supportive of breastfeeding, and milk is often shared with family or friends. And wet nursing is still strong in some places, surging in China after the milk crisis of 2008.
If you’re breastfeeding, you can support your general health and wellbeing with Life-Space Breastfeeding Probiotic. Among its 10 strains of beneficial bacteria are Bifidobacteria breve CECT7268 and Lactobacillus fermentum CECT5716, which are naturally found in breastmilk. It also contains Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001, which may help to reduce the risk of eczema in children with a family history, when taken during pregnancy, breastfeeding and in the first two years of life. Lastly, Iodine is included in the formula, which can help support a baby’s healthy brain development.
Breastfeeding has made a welcome return, but don’t forget that family and societal support for breastfeeding mums also makes a big difference to their success.
Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. Vitamin and mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.