In A Nutshell
In the late 1800s, questionable application of evolutionary theory convinced women they were “evolving” out of breastfeeding. Bottle feeding was seen as a more civilized, modern alternative. Unfortunately, the cow’s milk substituted for breast milk was rarely pasteurized and of such poor quality it led to a horrific increase in infant mortality in the United States.
The Whole Bushel
Breastfeeding had a number of things working against it in the Victorian-era United States. Sigmund Freud’s theory held that infants suckling at their mothers’ teats were exhibiting incestuous desires. In response to both Freud’s theory and “evolution,” Victorian mothers substituted bottle-feeding for the breast.
Forward-thinking mothers believed bottle feeding to be the future of child rearing. They also assumed recently invented “scientific” baby formulas and “treated” cow’s milk represented a healthier alternative to simple breast milk. They were wrong. The cow’s milk from which most infant formulas were derived was typically unpasteurized. The milk that mothers fed their children was frequently spoiled and riddled with bacteria.
During the 1890s in Chicago, Illinois, one study found 15 “hand-fed” babies were dying for each breast-fed infant. The medical community responded with one of the most aggressive public health campaigns in history. In Minneapolis, for example, the Breast Feeding Investigation Bureau of the Department of Pediatrics of the University of Minnesota was formed to assist every new mother in the area with any lactation-related issues. Posters and literature touting the benefits of breastfeeding became de rigueur across American cities. While breastfeeding never reached the levels physicians hoped for, they were able to make enormous, corrective strides to reduce infant mortality rates in the US and spurred on a successful campaign for pasteurized cow’s milk.