Some Crazy Breastfeeding History!

File:Louis XIV and his nurse.jpgIt seems as though breastfeeding has been a hotly debated topic for centuries, and the stuff they came up with centuries ago was quite interesting. Some of it seemed to make some sense and some of it seems like pure insanity. I found a great piece by Sünje Prühle. It’s entitled, What was the Best for an Infant from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times in Europe? The Discussion Concerning Wet Nurses. Here are some of the most interesting historical findings based on translated centuries old literature and journals.


Personality Passed on Through Breast Milk

Thomas Platter (1499–1582) was a Swiss author. In his autobiographical notes he wrote that that he had been fed via a horn, like the horn from a cow. Apparently his mom couldn’t nurse, so he received cow’s milk from a cow horn. He mentioned that this method of nutrition had been essential for him. Interestingly, Normally this procedure resulted in the deaths of many infants because cow’s milk was considered unsuitable and indigestible by a small child. That’s interesting that it was perceived that way given the stance breastfeeding activists feel that formula based on cows milk is much less digestible than human breast milk. What was exponentially more interesting to me though was that animal milk, back then, was suspected of transferring the attributes of the host animal onto the child.

Even more interesting, it was believed that a mother could pass on her love and also her character through her breast milk. They furthermore believe that was what happened via her blood in the womb. While I see no actual scientific reason to believe this, I do remember reading once that the mood of the mother is passed to the  unborn child and causes the child’s brain to become hardwired into his personality.  I noticed this same phenomenon with my own children, but that is very easily explained now that we understand brain chemistry. It stands to reason that similarly, hormones would be released to a child that could establish a habitual mood in an infant that could be passed on to a child though.

Jokingly, I wondered to myself, what attributes could soybeans possibly transfer onto a newborn child?


A Love Affair With The Breast

In the past,  breastfeeding was a sign and a symbol of motherly love and devotion.  The theologian and musician, Heinrich von Laufenberg (c 1390–1460), actually explained that the child should suck with “lust” at the breast of his mother. That was kind of a repulsive thought to me, and when I read it, I couldn’t help but wonder what the deleting -breastfeeding-photos patrol that works at Facebook  would think of that idea. Would they then allow more moms to keep there photos up given it would be sexualizing the act? Or is that pretty much what already think is happening ?

So, we’ve established that it was believed that a woman could pass along a part of her essence to her child when she nursed. They also had some ideas for what would happen if an improper wet nurse was chosen. If a child were to nurse from and take in the character of a woman that was a complete stranger, it could be nearly lethal. They meant this not so much in a physical death, but in the death of the child’s intended self. They believed that when nursing from a strange woman’s breasts, if it wasn’t a good fit, the entire course of that child’s life could be permanently modified and ruined.


Dr. Spock, The Reincarnate of Bartholomeus Metlinger?

Just as famous pediatric doctor, Dr. Spock, was highly revered for his bizarre parenting tips in the middle of last century, Bartholomeus Metlinger was one of the most famous doctors of his times, and the stuff he came up with was just plain out in left field. Metlinger was the first pediatrician in Germany and worked in Noerdlingen (now in Swabia) and Augsburg (now in Bavaria) and he authored ‘Regiment der Kinder’ which was essentially a book for parents on parenting from the late 1400’s.

While Germany went through many different idioms, Metlinger’s propositions never changed in any of the editions of his book. He gave advice for parental care until the child was seven years old. His audience was made up of  mostly German bourgeoisie parents. He told parents that a baby should not get the milk of the biological mother until the fourteenth day. Before then, he explained, the quality of the milk would not be good for the infant. Oh yes, he wrote that. But wait, it gets even crazier! He also proposed that to avoid engorgement and drying up, young puppies should suck the milk out of the mother’s breasts. I suppose he found that more prudent than the “Pediatric Authors of Antiquity” who recommended that the waiting period be about two or three days before a child should nurse off of his actual mother’s breasts.  Oh, but these older doctors- they didn’t suggest puppies. No. No. No. They suggested instead that another woman could suck this early milk from the mother’s breasts! I have to assume Facebook would be fine with that.


Or Just don’t Nurse at All!

In the area around the cities of Augsburg and Noerdlingen it was most likely normal to feed babies cereals at a very young age.  For centuries, it is theorized that women in those parts likely by the suggestion of the quack  Bartholomeus Metlinger just didn’t feed their children breast milk at all. Interestingly Obviously, for centuries the infant death rate in this area was extremely high in comparison to other regions of Germany.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, physicians guessed that in these geographic regions where breastfeeding simply didn’t occur for many generations, an atrophy of the female breasts happened because they surmised that the mammary glands became mutated after a long period of disuse for generations. Who knows if there is any merit there. Who even knows why the doctor suggested they not nurse. Perhaps there’s more. Perhaps there was some kind of toxin the the food supply there and he just happened to notice breastfeeding wasn’t working?  The doctors in the early 1800’s there thought that women simply lost their ability to nurse their children.


Reading through these stories, I simply can’t believe the theories that coincided with breast feeding throughout history and I sometimes wonder how our parenting choices will be viewed centuries from now.  What do you think? How do you suspect our society be viewed when we become history?



  1. Misty

    The word “lust” can mean appetite, not just “lust” in a sexual sense, lusty also means vigorously which would also make more sense in this context. I would assume, without having read the original context, that appetite or vigor would be the better choice since it’s a much older English and maybe even a poor choice of words in a translation (he was German right?). Anyway, just thought I would throw that out there . . . I really enjoy your blog!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top