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2.2 Advice on infant feeding

As bottle feeding was used as an alternative or to supplement the mother’s milk, bottles could contain ‘pap’, a mixture of milk, water and some form of food. Babies were often fed to a recipe passed on by a traditional midwife who cared for both mother and baby. According to the historian Marylynn Salmon breastfeeding problems resulted in ‘severe stress’ in a period and culture where women were expected to be fecund, so early modern ‘women’s collections of medicinal recipes invariably included remedies for increasing inadequate milk supplies as well as recipes for supplementary feedings’ (1994, p. 262). Recipes and ingredients for infant bottles could vary according to class and region; mixtures of milk, water, barley, biscuits, oats and soup-like substances were all used. The advice offered by obstetrician William Smellie in his midwifery manual published in 1752 features typical ingredients:

If the child is brought up by hand, the food ought to imitate, as near as possible the mother’s milk: let it consist of loaf-bread and water, boiled up together… and mixed with the same quantity of new cow’s milk; and sometimes with the broth of fowl or mutton.

(Smellie, 1752, p. 440)

Although these were not ideal foods and some were dangerous, many babies were nourished in this manner. The greatest danger came from contaminated water, adulterated ingredients and unclean equipment harbouring bacteria.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, medical men became increasingly interested and involved in childbirth which had traditionally been a woman’s role. Here you can see this transition of midwifery from a traditional practice involving one gender to a more professionalised, ‘scientific’ and medicalised event involving another gender evidenced in a surgeon’s sign and this cartoon from 1793.

A photograph of a wooden shop sign with the text ‘Midwifry by J. Short Surgeon’ painted in gold. The background of the sign is painted dark, with the edges decorated in a gold pattern.
Figure 12 A surgeon’s sign, England. Made and displayed between 1750 and 1800.
This is a coloured drawing of a person. On the left side, a man is depicted in appropriate male clothing for the period: a jacket and breeches. Behind him there is a cabinet with medicines and surgical instruments. The setting is a professional environment. The right-hand side of the figure wears female clothing for the period: a dress and lace cap. This female half stands before a grate with a fire. This side of the image is set in a home, with a patterned carpet and two bottles of medicine on a single shelf. Beneath the image is the wording: ‘A man-mid-wife.’
Figure 13 A caricature of a male midwife by Isaac Cruikshank, which depicts the male midwife as a hybrid ‘monster’ who crosses the boundary between male and female worlds. Published in Samuel William Forbes, Man-midwifery dissected; or, the obstetric family instructor (1793).

These male doctors were also clear that breastfeeding was best for babies. They regarded breast milk as a form of medicine and blamed mothers who could not feed. The difficulty was what to do in such cases. One 1785 midwifery manual suggested that: ‘If necessity deprive the child of the natural support that ought to be afforded by the mother, a proper nurse must be proposed’ (Aitken, 1785, p. 66).

The issue of feeding was again connected to class, as Charles White wrote in 1773: ‘women of rank and those in the middle stations of life meet with difficulty giving suck to children’ (quoted in Salmon, 1994, p. 258). White believed this was a consequence of their fashionable clothing and advised that ‘hard working labouring women’ in loose clothes made good nurses.

Activity 5

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Have a look at these artefacts. Who do you think would have bought these and why?

Tip: Consider the material they are made of.

This coloured photograph shows four silver metallic objects lying on red fabric. Each of the four objects is circular with a small opening in the centre.
Figure 14 Four round objects, made between 1786 and 1821, from hallmarked sterling silver.
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These uncomfortable-looking objects are nipple shields designed to make breastfeeding easier. Nipple shields were breastfeeding aids designed to be worn over the nipple and areola of the breast of a lactating woman to provide a larger surface for the baby to latch on to while permitting the flow of milk and making the mother more comfortable. They are well made with fine metal work and are silver so these are elite objects that would have been expensive. Their existence is proof of the difficulties some wealthy women were having with breastfeeding infants (as we know all women could) and are also evidence of their perseverance and willingness to spend money on trying to resolve feeding problems. We know less about the breastfeeding problems of poor women whose cases went unrecorded by expensive male midwives or doctors.