Recently a woman called the Health School from a distant city to make arrangements to come here for a fast. She stated that she was nursing her four-year-old son. Although, historically, the long nursing period has dominated human infant feeding until very recent times, such a long nursing period is at present considered an oddity. Under the able tutelage of physicians, pediatricians, the dairy industry and the manufacturers of canned baby foods, mothers of today tend to regard nursing their infants as an activity that belongs to lower stages of culture. They do not think of actively nursing their babies as a biological function, but as a mere cultural activity.
In the Renaissance, French upper-class women refused to breast-feed their babies. Not having cows as substitutes for mothers, they secured wet nurses, commonly young farm women, to nurse their offspring. This is not the first historical instance in which women have found it beneath their dignity to nurse their babies
A leading Chicago pediatrician recently stated in a radio interview that in some parts of Africa, in which the people have been recently introduced to civilization, malnutrition in infants and children is on the increase due to a change in the infant-feeding pattern. As these countries become more civilized, he stated, mothers identify themselves with their more affluent counterparts and are turning away from breastfeeding.
Contrast this attitude and practice with that of the ancient Egyptians, among whom it was the custom to nurse their babies three or more years. Among these ancient peoples, declared by some students of the subject to have been the healthiest people that history records, even the goddesses nursed their young, as revealed by the fact that Isis nursed the baby Horus.
Statues of the infant Horus drinking her milk and gazing up admiringly into her eyes may be the original Madonna and Child. Among a people whose goddesses do not find it beneath their dignity to nurse their offspring, those mothers who refused to do so must have been quite rare.
In The Hygienic Care of Children, I stressed the principle that the nursing period bears a definite relation to the time required for the young mammal to attain maturity. Animals that grow rapidly and mature early, as a rule, have short nursing periods; animals that grow slowly and mature later, as a rule, have longer nursing periods. There are exceptions to this rule, found largely among carnivorous animals. It is a significant fact that the young of carnivorous animals are more poorly developed at birth than the young of vegetarian animals, are likely to be born blind, and pass through a period of helplessness.
The female walrus suckles her young for two years, or until their tusks are long enough to dig for clams. This is an example of how young mammals are nursed until their anatomical equipment is sufficiently developed to enable them to eat other foods. Baby gar seals are weaned during the third week after birth, as the cows again take to the sea. They must now feed themselves. For the next two weeks they do not eat, but rely upon their accumulated food stores. Becoming hungry, they take to the sea and learn to find food.
The elephant matures at 14 years, but is ready for mating at 11 or 12 years. The usual range of life of the elephant is about 50 to 60 years. The young elephant sheds its milk tusks five or six months after birth, but continues to suckle for another two years. The young stay with the mother three to four years, perhaps sucking most of this time. Indeed, up to the age of five, the trunk is of little use to the young elephant; but at this age the youngster begins to gather grass and ceases to depend upon its mother’s milk.
Man grows slowest and is longest in maturing of all the animals. We should naturally expect to see the normal human nursing period to be a rather lengthy one. And, indeed, it has been lengthy throughout recorded history until within the lifetime of many now living. Sixty years ago it was not unusual for mothers to nurse their babies for two, three, and four years.
An old book, A Description of Pitcairn’s Island and Its Inhabitants, tells us that the women of Otaheite sometimes do not wean their babies for three to four years. The Dyak women, chopping wood and tending fires, while their husbands are out hunting, are still perfectly capable of nursing their offspring, whom they suckle until they are two to three years old. Aztec children were weaned in the third year.
The Spanish explorer, Cabeza de Vaca, who spent a few years among the now extinct Karankawa Indians who inhabited the coast, offshore islands and a narrow strip of mainland South Texas, from the west side of Galveston to Corpus Christi, tells us that they nursed their children until they were 12 years old, because, as they explained, it was frequently necessary to go without food for several days and the children had to be suckled for a long time. These food gatherers, living in a land where food was not abundant and wandering from campsite to campsite as the food supplies of one region were exhausted, seem to have often been short of food.
This may be accepted as an example of the manner in which the nursing practices of mankind have been determined by the exigencies of life. Where food has been plentiful and its character such that very young children could eat it, the children have been nursed for shorter periods; where food was scarce, often lacking entirely, and coarse, hence unsuited to the very young, the nursing period has been prolonged. Fortunately for these children, primitive women have been able to provide milk for their young. They have not called upon milk animals to substitute for them.
It may be reasoned that because in modern life food is abundant, of great variety, and our means of preparing it far beyond anything the primitive mother ever dreamed of, we are justified in reducing the nursing time of our infants to a bare minimum or in omitting nursing altogether. But inasmuch as no substitute for mother’s milk has been found that equals it in meeting the needs of the human young, it seems that there is an irreducible minimum of time during which all babies should be nursed. Nursing is not only a nutritional must, it also possesses psychological value for which no adequate substitute has been found.
The foregoing fact was early recognized by Hygienists. Dr. Thomas Low Nichols gave expression to it when he said: “The best food for an infant is the milk of a healthy mother. The mother’s love strengthens her babe, and their lives mingle in the act of nursing. A mother gives much more nourishment than her milk. She gives of her nervous power, her vital force, her heart and mind and soul.” That there is any transfer of nerve energy or of vital force from mother to baby is extremely doubtful, but that the mother gives of her heart, mind, and soul, in that she gives the baby her love, comfort, a feeling of security and a feeling of belonging is now coming to be recognized by orthodox psychology.
During uncounted ages, antedating nursing bottles and nipples, the first sustenance the newborn baby received came from its mother’s breasts. This is still the best source of nutriment for the human infant. There is another and, I think, fundamental question I should ask in this connection, namely: what are the results of breaking the normal sequences that have been established in nature? Pregnancy and birth are normally followed by a prolonged nursing period. When a woman fails to nurse her offspring, this normal sequence is interrupted. There must inevitably be unwanted consequences of this break into the normal order.
Learn more about pregnancy
A study of such consequences, if it were possible under present circumstances, might reveal some connection between woman’s failure to nurse her babies and the increasing prevalence of breast cancer. It might also reveal a connection between this break in normal order and woman’s nervous troubles.
Many women complain that they are unable to nurse their children. In most cases, it seems to me, this is merely a camouflage for her refusal to do so. I believe that most women can nurse their babies for prolonged periods if they really desire to do so. Life is hard in primitivesocieties and food is often scarce, but these mothers succeed in nursing their babies and children for a few years.
Life has always been hard among the masses of mankind, yet peasant women, doing hard work in the fields, have throughout history nursed their babies for two, three, and four years. In many instances they have nursed their own baby and that of another woman.
When a woman’s own mammary glands refuse to secrete food for her offspring, it is high time we stop and ask a few serious questions. Why are women so defective that they cannot secrete the essential food of their young? What has happened to them that the race could not survive except for the assistance of the cow or goat? If tomorrow all the milk cows of the land were killed or were to cease producing milk, hundreds of thousands of babies would suffer for lack of food.
Many of them, no doubt, would perish. This is a precarious position for any species of animal life to find itself in. Is it possible to restore the human breast to full functioning power? If not, must the human race be forever be the unweaned parasite of the cow?