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Infant Feeding


Valerie A. Fildes

Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986. 462 pp.


Review by Kenneth Kaye


Valerie A. Fildes is affiliated with the ESRC Group for the History of Population at the University of Cambridge (England).

Kenneth Kaye, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School, is author of The Mental and Social Life of Babies: How Parents Create Persons.


No subject is so fundamental to humankind's survival and so close to the fount of human life that overly thorough research and exhausting detail cannot reduce it to pedantry. The author has utilized everything published in English (often derived from Italian, French, or Dutch authorities), between the years 1500 and 1800, relevant to lactation, wet nurses, neonatal nutrition, and mortality. She also devotes a chapter to the ancient Near East and medieval Europe.

Stuffed with facts—including fascinating tidbits of social history—but entirely lacking in argument, theory, hypothesis-testing, or new significant knowledge, the book is an archive for historians of medicine and of the family. There are 25 pages on age at weaning (earlier in the 18th than in the 16th and 17th centuries) complete with histograms—despite the inadequate sample sizes and acknowledged sampling bias due to the greater biographical information on upper-class infants—without any discussion of why we need this information compiled. Similarly, fees paid to English wet nurses are listed: 2 to 10 shillings per week, varying in no systematic way by county or by century.

The biologist author gives a plausible (though not new) account of how recommended practices, from farming city babies out to nurses in the salubrious country air to artificial feeding in efficient hospital wards, inflated infant mortalities to roughly 50% (up to 100% in some foundling homes and workhouses). But she fails to ask: What, if any, were the social effects of feeding traditions by particular cultures at particular times? How did practices change as a function of certain aspects of culture? How did high infant mortality shape the historical roots of modern society?

The book is saved from tedium by nearly 100 plates. There are photographs of glass, horn, clay, porcelain, silver, pewter, wood, parchment, and leather bottles with narrow spouts (one-year-olds use similar devices today, plastic cups with dripping-holes in their lids); drawings (a 16th-century medical illustration showing the vasa menstrualis, believed to carry the menses from uterus to breast during lactation); paintings (“The mother gives a last kiss to the baby she may never see again, as the wet nurse takes it off to the country,” p. 201); engravings (a Florentine arcutio, a wooden frame that fit over the baby and under the bed clothes. on which the nurse could lie, dangling her breasts in, without smothering her client); and statues (a 16th-century Virgin and Child with a sucking bag). Few of the text's poems, letters, diary entries, sermons, and medical tracts are as compelling as the visual selections.

The most interesting fact is what Fildes did not find, in view of the enormous attention given to the psychology of neonatal feeding in this century. Every discussion of baby feeding she unearthed concerned only physical effects—pro and con—on the infant and mother. Fildes found no mention of the psychological significance of breast versus bottle, mother versus wet nurse, schedule versus demand feeding, or age or method of weaning. Those questions apparently arise only when there are reasonably good odds that babies will live to care how they were fed.


[reviewed in Contemporary Psychology, 1988, Vol. 33 No. 5, pp. 449-450]