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Historian of infant feeding debunks myths about how babies ate in the pre-formula days

Prior to baby formula, breastfeeding was the norm, but that doesn't mean it always worked.

As if the past handful of years weren't challenging enough, the U.S. is currently dealing with a baby formula crisis.

Due to a perfect storm of supply chain issues, product recalls, labor shortages and inflation, manufacturers are struggling to keep up with formula demand and retailers are rationing supplies. As a result, families that rely on formula are scrambling to ensure that their babies get the food they need.

Naturally, people are weighing in on the crisis, with some throwing out simplistic advice like, "Why don't you just do what people did before baby formula was invented and just breastfeed?"

That might seem logical, unless you understand how breastfeeding works and know a bit about infant mortality throughout human history.


Rutgers University historian Carla Cevasco, Ph.D. shared some of the history of infant feeding in a viral Twitter thread to set the record straight. (Note: Cevasco provided sources for her facts, which can be viewed at the end of her thread on Twitter.)

"You may be hearing the argument that before the rise of modern commercial infant formula, babies all ate breastmilk and everything was great," she wrote. "As a historian of infant feeding, let me tell you why that’s not true."

Cevasco explained that, throughout history, people have had to feed infants food other than breastmilk for a variety of reasons.

"Sometimes the birthing parent was unable to breastfeed," she wrote, "Because: death in childbirth, or physical/mental health concerns, or need to return to work outside the home right after childbirth, OR their partner or enslaver forced them not to breastfeed so that they could return to fertility ASAP after giving birth.

"Sometimes baby was unable to breastfeed. Because: poor latch, prematurity, cleft palate, other health or disability reasons, etc.

"Sometimes baby was being cared for by carers other than birthing parent, including adoptive parents."

Cevasco went on to explain what babies ate instead of a parent's breast milk in those situations.

"Sometimes someone else would breastfeed the child," she wrote. "This might have been a relative or neighbor doing it for free. Or it might have been a paid or unpaid servant or enslaved person doing it at the expense of their own nursing infant, who might starve to death as a result."

She also explained that some babies thrived on alternative diets, which are not recommended today due to concerns about safety and nutrition.

"Wabanaki women in the 18th century sometimes fed infants a mixture of boiled walnuts, cornmeal, and water; an English colonist, Elizabeth Hanson, reported that her baby thrived on this diet," she wrote. "In early modern Europe, babies often ate pap or panada, mixtures of animal milk or water, bread crumbs or flour. Sometimes these were boiled, sometimes they weren’t."

However, she explained, those milk substitutes weren't always safe or nutritionally complete.

"So before the advent of modern commercial formula (in the 1950s), a lot of babies died of illness or starvation because they couldn’t breastfeed and the alternative foods were not safe or adequate," she wrote. "Let me repeat that: in the absence of modern formula, A LOT OF BABIES DIED OF ILLNESS OR STARVATION DUE TO LACK OF SAFE OR ADEQUATE FOOD."

As Cevasco illustrates, the idea that the pre-formula days were a bastion of infant health due to widespread breastfeeding is simply incorrect. Cevasco explained that better supports such as paid parental leave, free lactation consultation and education, better access to places to pump and so on, would go a long way toward increasing breastfeeding rates. She also pointed out that the greed of the corporate formula industry created the formula shortage crisis.

"But! Let’s not demonize formula because of an imagined past in which everyone breastfed," she wrote. "In the ACTUAL past, babies fucking starved and died of disease. Babies who would have survived today, because they would have had access to safe, nutritionally complete formula. Access that is now, horrifyingly and unjustly, under threat for many babies and their caregivers."

Cevasco pointed out that there are multiple safe and nutritionally complete ways to feed a baby, and making sure babies don't go hungry should be our main goal.

So many misinformed comments could be avoided with a basic understanding of what infant feeding looked like in the past, as well as a basic understanding of how breastfeeding works both physically and logistically. Let's spend more time informing ourselves and sharing facts from experts rather than continuing to perpetuate unhelpful and harmful myths about both breastfeeding and formula feeding.

Joy

1991 blooper clip of Robin Williams and Elmo is a wholesome nugget of comedic genius

Robin Williams is still bringing smiles to faces after all these years.

Robin Williams and Elmo (Kevin Clash) bloopers.

The late Robin Williams could make picking out socks funny, so pairing him with the fuzzy red monster Elmo was bound to be pure wholesome gold. Honestly, how the puppeteer, Kevin Clash, didn’t completely break character and bust out laughing is a miracle. In this short outtake clip, you get to see Williams crack a few jokes in his signature style while Elmo tries desperately to keep it together.

Williams has been a household name since what seems like the beginning of time, and before his death in 2014, he would make frequent appearances on "Sesame Street." The late actor played so many roles that if you were ask 10 different people what their favorite was, you’d likely get 10 different answers. But for the kids who spent their childhoods watching PBS, they got to see him being silly with his favorite monsters and a giant yellow canary. At least I think Big Bird is a canary.

When he stopped by "Sesame Street" for the special “Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake” in 1991, he was there to show Elmo all of the wonderful things you could do with a stick. Williams turns the stick into a hockey stick and a baton before losing his composure and walking off camera. The entire time, Elmo looks enthralled … if puppets can look enthralled. He’s definitely paying attention before slumping over at the realization that Williams goofed a line. But the actor comes back to continue the scene before Elmo slinks down inside his box after getting Williams’ name wrong, which causes his human co-star to take his stick and leave.

The little blooper reel is so cute and pure that it makes you feel good for a few minutes. For an additional boost of serotonin, check out this other (perfectly executed) clip about conflict that Williams did with the two-headed monster. He certainly had a way of engaging his audience, so it makes sense that even after all of these years, he's still greatly missed.

This article originally appeared on 08.21.18


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Lynch posted her bargain hunt on TikTok, sharing that she had been perusing thrift shops in Ohio for four days in a row, with the actual ceremony being only a month away. Lynch then displays an elegant ivory-colored Camila Coelho dress. Fitting perfectly, still brand new and with the tags on it, no less.

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