What Did Mothers do Before Baby Formula?

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COMMENT: Hi Martin! Thank you for all you do. I was discussing the baby formula shortage with my 94-year-old Italian grandmother, and it opened my eyes to how resourceful people can be when left with no alternatives.

Baby formula was not an option in Sicily when her children were born. In fact, she did not learn about baby formula or disposable diapers until she immigrated to America. Disposable diapers were still not an option for poor immigrants and she cleaned each diaper by hand. As for formula, as most mothers know, occasionally it is not possible to produce enough milk for the day. Cow’s milk was never an option as they thought it would harm the baby.

My grandmother explained how she would put a piece of bread in a pot of boiling water, remove the bread, and use the water to feed her baby. Everyone in the town knew one another, and if a woman was having trouble producing milk, she simply would bring her baby to another woman in the town. I asked her if the women charged for their milk and she looked at me as if I were crazy. They did it from the goodness of their heart. There was such a strong sense of community that everyone in the town worked together. I cannot see that happening in today’s society.

REPLY: Times certainly have changed. German chemist Justus von Liebig invented baby formula in 1865 but it was not widely marketed or trusted for decades. Formula was taboo before companies like Nestle launched global marketing campaigns to push mothers to choose formula over breastmilk.

Wet nurses have existed throughout history. Lactating women were often hired by aristocrats or wealthier individuals to feed their babies. It was not uncommon for poor women who were unable to breastfeed to temporarily give up their baby and become a wet nurse for a different family, hoping to earn enough money essentially to buy her child back. Slaves throughout history were also forced to act as wet nurses for the families they served.

In ancient Rome, they had the columna lactarian (milk column) where mothers could bring their babies and receive milk from a wet nurse. More troubling, the site also became a notorious location for mothers to abandon their unwanted children.

The profession of wet nursing still exists, although you will not find listings on job application sites. The concept of having another women breastfeed a baby is still taboo in modern society and largely unregulated. According to numerous sources, women in the United States will pay a minimum of $1,000 per week to hire a wet nurse, making the option still only feasible for the wealthy. We may see a resurgence of the profession as alternative options no longer exist and people are desperate for additional sources of income.