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2.1 Reasons for bottle feeding

A colour photograph of a dark grey metallic object on a pale-grey background. The object is slender at the top and rounded at the bottom. At the top of the object is small protrusion or teat. A seam indicates that the top of the object is detachable. The object is slightly worn and scratched.
Figure 10 A pewter infant’s feeding bottle, made in Europe between 1601 and 1900.

You may find this surprising, as people tend to think of formula feeding as a twentieth-century development and assume that in the past all babies were breastfed, but the reasons for bottle feeding infants are as old as humanity. Maternal mortality was high until the late nineteenth century so motherless babies were not uncommon; not all mothers were able to breastfeed and then there were the infants whose circumstances required artificial or supplementary feeding. Babies who were orphaned, abandoned, concealed or ill and those with a poorly-nourished or a working mother all needed feeding. In addition, mothers who began breastfeeding could suffer from infected breasts known as ‘milk fever’, obstructions, ulcers, pain and other problems which could result in bottle feeding.

If you begin with this artefact, it becomes apparent that it really only gives us half a story; a bottle must have some form of milk. Using our original object as a starting point we can move back and forth on a timeline and investigate what babies consumed through bottles and why.

If you move backwards chronologically from our porcelain bottle, early modern babies whose mothers could not feed them were often given to wet nurses, usually women of a lower socio-economic status with available breast milk. This was considered problematic, as in this period breast milk was thought to be a form of bodily fluid which could confer characteristics or morals and parents were often worried about the morality of the wet nurse. This cartoon shows that such anxieties were still present in Victorian times.

A black and white drawing. On the left of the image is a table with several bottles on it. In the centre of the image, a woman wearing a dress pours liquid from a wine bottle into the mouth of the baby on her knee. On the right of the image, a man and woman are shown coming into the room with expressions of shock. The woman precedes the man; she wears a formal dress and a crown. ‘Royal Dry Nursing Extraordinary.’
Figure 11 A satirical print which features a drunken nurse about to give the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) a drop of alcohol as a horrified Queen Victoria and Prince Albert burst in on the scene. Lithograph, published by Messrs Fores, c.1841.