Historian Reveals How Babies Starved To Death Before Formula Was Invented

The recent shortages of baby formula in the U.S. have ignited social media commentary from breastfeeding advocates and others, many of whom appear to look back fondly at a past before mass-produced formula was available.

Some have posted recipes for homemade formulas that have traveled down the generations. "This is how it was done years back, will work today," writes one poster on Twitter. Others argue against suggestions that breastfeeding is an easy or obvious solution for parents unable to find formula.

"I remember the first time my baby drank formula at 3 days old," begins another tweet with more than 130,000 replies. "My milk hadn't come in. He was starving. He gulped 4oz and finally stopped screaming after 2 days and slept. I sobbed with happiness."

Baby Formula Shortage Nationwide
A woman in Annapolis, Maryland, looks for baby food in a Target store on May 16. Getty

Both the assumption that homemade formula remedies represent a solution to the current crisis and the tendency to view breastfeeding as something that has always been the easier or preferred option are dangerously simplistic, according to historian Carla Cevasco, an assistant professor at Rutgers University.

"Existence of a safe nutritionally alternative to breast milk is not something we should take for granted," she told Newsweek. "In the past, parents knew they were taking a risk when they fed their children foods other than breastmilk, and children died."

Breastfeeding is not always a personal choice

Throughout history, obstacles to breastfeeding have existed, even when there were no alternatives or those that existed were not nutritionally adequate. In aristocratic families, breastfeeding was often shunned in the interest of shortening the time between pregnancies and producing more heirs, Cevasco says. Wet nurses often stepped into the breach, often threatening the health of their own children.

A similar pattern occurred with women in slavery, where lactation was forcibly shortened in an effort to increase the number of enslaved children. Many enslaved mothers also became wet nurses to the wives of their white owners, a subject that University of California Berkeley Assistant Professor of History Stephanie Jones-Rogers has written about in the journal Slavery and Abolition.

Although there is little high-quality demographic data from before the 19th century, medical data from the period shows that infants who were not fed breast milk died in higher numbers, Cevasco says; by the end of the 18th century, British Empire officials were encouraging women to breastfeed their own children in an effort to reduce infant mortality.

Safe formula is not the end of the argument

Although industrialization of the food supply introduced mass-produced infant foods at the end of the 19th century, the early products were "not nutritionally complete" and tended to be unsafe, Cevasco says, adding that summer was an especially dangerous season when baby products were at risk of spoilage from due to the lack of refrigeration.

The arrival of reliable formula in the mid-20th century coincided with the low ebb of breastfeeding, Cevasco says, a trend that can be traced to the industrial revolution and Gilded Age as women entering the workforce were unable to sustain breastfeeding.

Now, while 85 percent of babies in the U.S. start off on breast milk, only around a quarter are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months, Cevasco says, noting that the lack of universal paid maternity leave and absence of support for breastfeeding at most workplaces play a key role.

"Breastfeeding has never been available to everybody as an option for a variety of reasons," she says. "The US could do a lot to support new parents, but it is never going to be 100%."

At the same time, she is unnerved by the effort to use social media to provide makeshift solutions to the shortage of baby formula, noting that parents need to be having conversations with their pediatricians, rather than adopting "DIY formula recipes," even if many older Americans were raised on them.

"When I talk about the past I want to make it very clear that it isn't a place we want to return to," she adds. "We shouldn't idealize a past without infant formula, because a world without infant formula was a world in which infants starved."