The old-fashioned benefits of breastfeeding

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Antique painting of a mother and baby (1916)

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The old-fashioned benefits of breastfeeding are many, no matter what century you’re living in.

Here’s a look back at some of what experts were saying about nursing babies back in the early 1900s.

Note: If you have any concerns about breastfeeding or your baby’s health, please seek the help of a qualified professional. This information is presented only as a historical reference, and does not necessarily represent current best practices. For more information, you might visit the La Leche League International website.

Mother and baby in 1903

Vintage breastfeeding tips: The best way to keep your baby healthy (from 1915)
Editor’s note: In 1915, breastfeeding wasn’t an issue of political correctness — it was very often a matter of life and death. Across the US, 10 percent of babies died before their first birthdays. (The CDC reports that in some cities, the death rate in 1900 was closer to 30 percent.)

Major initiatives were started to teach mothers how to keep their babies healthy, and covered topics from feeding to sleeping, bathing to playing. The plan worked. Over the next decades, infant mortality rates dropped tremendously as more and more children were kept healthy and strong.

Article published in The Day Book (Chicago, Ill.) June 28, 1915

Feed babies properly and they will grow up healthy and happy

While the mother should know what to do when her baby is sick, it is still better that she know how to keep her baby well. She should realize, above all, that the health of the baby depends more upon its food than upon any other factor.

And there is no food half so satisfactory and healthy for the child as the milk of its own mother. This has been shown beyond question by the fact that only three per cent of the children who die from summer complaint [diarrhea] are fed exclusively on breast milk.

Therefore, every mother who is not prevented by physical causes should nurse her own baby, as she increases its chances of life many times by doing. Nothing can take the place of the mother’s own milk — not even the milk of some other mother.

The old-fashioned benefits of breastfeeding

Here are some of the reasons why mother’s milk is best for the baby: It is the child’s natural food and contains the proper proportions of fats, sugars and proteins. In addition, it goes into the baby’s stomach as it comes from the mother, with very little chance of infection or spoiling.

In like manner, it contains certain things from the mother’s body that protect the infant against various diseases. Experiments by physicians have shown that fresh mother’s milk mixed with the germs of some diseases will kill them very quickly.

Nurse the baby every two hours during the day, and two or three times at night, but do not nurse the baby whenever it cries. A moderate amount of crying helps to develop the infant’s lungs. Babies who are nursed irregularly or whenever they cry are likely to get indigestion and then cry the harder from pain.

Do not wean the baby as long as he is gaining, and never do so except by the advice of a physician. Do not follow the advice of friends or neighbors about it.

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1800s Baby with 3 Facial Expressions


Vintage breastfeeding tips: What every mother ought to know about her baby (from 1915)
Editor’s note: The introduction to this article published in the nation’s capital was prefaced with some sobering notes: “It is more dangerous to be a baby in Washington than to be a soldier in the European war. Last year, 1730 babies were born in Washington, and 715 babies under one year of age died.”

Those startling statistics were coupled with this plea: “Won’t you help to save the babies — not only your baby, but every mother’s baby?”

No other one thing a mother can do for her baby means more to him than to feed him at her own breast.

Babies who are fed entirely at the breast usually do not have diarrhea, unless over-fed, but bottle-fed babies are very likely to have this trouble, even if their milk is carefully prepared. This is true at all seasons of the year, but it is especially important in summer when the heat and flies make bottle-feeding so dangerous.

A mother can usually nurse her baby if she has been properly cared for before the baby’s birth and at the time of birth, and no mother who wants to give her baby a good start will consent to deprive him of breast milk, at least during the first few months of life.

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Mothers nursing babies - Red Cross tent 1918

After the mother’s milk comes, usually on the third day, the baby may be nursed every three hours, at 6 and 9 am, at 12 noon, and at 3, 6, and 9 pm, with one feeding during the night. On the four-hour plan, the nursing will come at 6 and 10 am, and 2, 6 and 10 pm. In the intervals, she should give him a little water which has first been boiled and cooled.

When the baby is four months old, he should no longer be nursed at night, and at six months the mother should begin to lengthen the time between feedings a quarter of an hour each week until the length of time between nursings is four hours.

If the milk is plentiful, the breasts should be nursed alternately, but it may be necessary to give both breasts at one feeding in order to satisfy the baby.

The baby requires no other food, save breast milk and drinking water, until he is eight or nine months old.

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Vintage breastfeeding tips - Infant Mortality 1915 (5)

Vintage breastfeeding tips from the US Department of Labor - Infant Mortality 1915 (14)


Benefits of breastfeeding your baby (from 1922)

By S Josephine Baker, MD – Director, Bureau of Child Hygiene, Department of Health, New York City (1922)

Every once in a while, someone brings forward the idea that women are becoming less and less able to feed their babies nature’s way. I have never been able to determine that this was true.

There is undoubtedly some basis for the belief that women in some walks of life are less willing to nurse their babies than they used to be, and that the amount of natural nursing that goes on among our foreign population and the more primitive groups of people far exceeds that which is found among the more socialized or even the so-called more intelligent classes.

In nine cases out of ten, a woman’s inability to feed her baby the proper way is due to her lack of willingness to make herself fit to do so rather than to any inherent inability in this line. Experience of many years with many hundreds of thousands of babies and mothers has firmly convinced me that ninety-five percent of all women can nurse their babies if they choose to do so.

In the other five percent, of course, there will always be the group of women who from disease of one kind or another are debarred from this wonderful privilege. Such mothers are to be deeply pitied, for certainly the privilege of nursing one’s own baby is a heaven-sent gift, second only in importance to the coming of the baby itself.

Vintage mom and baby

The pros and cons of breastfeeding (from 1922)

If we place the matter on a purely utilitarian basis, there are so many arguments in favor of nursing and so few arguments against it that it would seem as though it ought to be adopted as a universal custom.

From the point of view of the mother, the advantages are many. She can set her mind at rest regarding the possibility of her baby having an upset digestion. The summer diseases need not worry her. She has no need to depend upon an erratic milk supply.

From the point of view of the baby, the advantages are just as striking.

The breastfed baby is always stronger than the bottle-fed baby, he has better teeth, firmer muscles, is less apt to have any diseases, his gain in weight is more even and regular; he is usually well-nourished strong and vigorous, and his advantage holds good not only during the first year, but it also gives him a certain sturdy preparation for life that is absolutely invaluable and cannot be gained in any other way.

mom nursing baby 1915

Who are the ignorant mothers? (from 1922)

With all these advantages, it would seem that every mother would nurse her baby without question, yet we find today that wrong feeding is still the second highest cause of baby sickness and death.

Owing to their natural inclination and their willingness to accept advice, foreign-born mothers almost universally nurse their babies, and the infant death rates in our big cities today are lower among our Russian, Italian, Polish and other large race groups than they are among the babies of our native-born parents.

Today, the babies of the poor are almost universally breastfed. With the babies of the well-to-do, the habit is not nearly so prevalent. I am not inclined to believe that this is because the well-to-do mother loves her baby any less than does the mother of more limited means.

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Vintage illustration of an old-fashioned mother and baby

I believe it is because the American mother has not appreciated the tremendous importance of this subject.

The truth as it stands today is that it is not poverty that kills babies, but ignorance, and that this ignorance is largely an attribute of our so-called “more intelligent classes.”

Sometimes mothers stop nursing their babies because they cannot do it entirely. This is always a mistake. It should be kept up even if the baby gets only part of the food he needs at each nursing. It is never wise to give a bottle feeding in place of a natural feeding unless one is trying to wean the baby, because it always means that there will be less natural milk next time.

The right way is to weigh the baby before nursing, then have him nurse as much as he can, and weigh him again immediately afterwards. In this way, it will be easy to see just how much milk has been taken.

The additional amount that is necessary for a full feeding can then be given from a bottle and may be made up of cow’s milk, properly modified. This is what is called a complemental feeding, and is far better than substituting an entire bottle feeding at any one time.

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Antique portrait of mom kissing baby in a bassinet

Mother: Stay healthy (from 1922)

If a mother wishes to keep herself in good physical condition to nurse her baby, she can do so with very little effort.

It may mean a certain amount of sacrifice as regards late hours, overexercise, too much excitement and fatigue, and possibly she may feel the deprivation of giving up the rich articles that may have been included in her usual diet, but if she will live the ordinary, simple, wholesome life that every woman should, drinking at least one and a half pints of milk a day, which may be taken in the form of cocoa, milk, soups, or even in custards, junket or ice cream, cut down her tea and coffee to once a day only, eat plenty of green vegetables, bread and butter, fruits, with meat not more often than once a day and preferably only three or four times a week, avoid anything except simple desserts, and eliminate rich sauces, gravies, highly spiced foods and pastries from her diet, she will be taking the kind of food that is best suited to her needs.

In addition, if she can spend most of her days in the open air, with enough exercise to keep her in good condition, but not enough to over-fatigue her; if she will sleep in a room with windows wide open winter and summer or, better yet, sleep outdoors; if she can eliminate worry, anger and outbursts of emotion from her life, there is no reason why she should not nurse her baby, and why her baby should not be thoroughly well nourished as a result.

There are some mothers, however, who cannot nurse their babies under any circumstances, and when this situation occurs it is important to know just what the best substitute food may be.

There can be no question that when natural milk is not available, cow’s milk is the best substitute. The question of artificial feeding, however, cannot be settled so easily as that.

WWI dad baby war

Babies are not machines (from 1922)

Babies are not machines, to be judged by the same standards. Each one is a law unto himself.

Generally speaking, properly modified cow’s milk, given in sufficient quantities and at appropriate intervals, is the best type of infant food we have, but occasionally we may have to use other foods.

When this need occurs, a doctor should always be consulted, and his directions should be followed explicitly until the baby’s diet is safely launched and the quantity of food he requires and is able to digest is determined.

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