A new study from the Netherlands has revealed breastfeeding infants may not have been standard practice among mothers in the 1800s, as common perception would suggest.
Led by Western biological anthropologist Andrea L. Waters-Rist, the study found unusually low rates of breast-fed infants at a 19th century rural Dutch village, likely because the mothers then were busy working.
The findings were published today in the journal PLOS ONE.
Artificially feeding infants, as opposed to breastfeeding, is considered a fairly modern practice, much rarer before the advent of commercially available alternatives to breast milk. However, studies of past populations in Europe have found that breastfeeding practices can vary significantly with regional cultural variation.
“This study shows that in the past, as with the present, many factors influenced how a mother decided to feed her baby,” said Waters-Rist, an anthropology professor and expert in human osteoarchaeology.
In this study, Waters-Rist and her research collaborators examined a 19th century dairy farming village in the Netherlands to explore factors linked to lower rates of breastfeeding. The researchers tested isotopic signatures in the remains of 277 individuals, including nearly 90 infants and children, from Beemster, North Holland. Breastfeeding leaves its mark in the bones of infants in the form of altered ratios of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes.
They found little to no evidence of breastfeeding; a surprising finding given that this community exhibits features commonly associated with breastfeeding communities of the time: such being Protestant, of moderate socioeconomic status, and where mothers commonly worked in or near the home.
“Mothers and children were vital and active agents in past societies, and their health and nutrition had long term consequences for the well-being of the population as a whole,” said Waters-Rist.
Other evidence indicates that mothers in 19th century Beemster were commonly working as dairy farmers. The researchers suspect a high workload and a ready supply of cow’s milk, which provides an alternative infant food source, were important factors contributing to these low rates of breastfeeding.
Previous studies of a few urban archaeological sites have found that mothers who worked long factory shifts had low rates of breastfeeding, but a similar phenomenon has not been found in a rural population until now.
Future studies on more sites will help elucidate how regional cultural practices impacted rates of breastfeeding over time, and in turn, how these factors have influenced infant health over recent centuries.