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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

Delivery driver's reaction to snacks left for him shows how a little kindness goes a long way

“Seeing a grown man get so excited about Capri Sun is extra wholesome."

'Dee' the delivery guy stoked to get some Doritos.

Sometimes the smallest gesture can change someone’s day for the better, especially when that act of kindness lets them know their work is appreciated. Over the last few years, delivery drivers have done a fantastic job keeping people healthy during the pandemic, so Toni Hillison Barnett told News 11 that she and her husband started a tradition of leaving snacks for their drivers on the front porch.

The Barnetts, who live in Louisville, Kentucky, can see the drivers' reactions by recording them on their doorbell cameras. “I live for reactions like this to our snack cart! Thx to all of the delivery drivers out there! We appreciate you!” Toni wrote on an Instagram post.

Recently, one of the Barnetts’ delivery guys, a joyous fellow that we believe is known as Dee, went viral on TikTok because of his positive reaction to receiving some snacks during his deliveries. The snacks are tasty, no doubt. But it’s also wonderful to feel appreciated. After Toni posted the video it received over 100,000 views.

“Oh my God, you guys are the best, I gotta take a snapshot of this,” Dee can be heard saying in the video. “Oh, Capri Suns are my favorite, Yes!”

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Some people, on the other hand, get creative. I once came across a post on social media where someone claimed their pit bull puppy was actually a Silver Labrador. But one woman on TikTok was harboring a secret cat in her rental that had a no pets policy, and either her cat was unaware or he was aware and was simply being a jerk.

My money is on the latter since cats are known to be jerks for no reason. I mean, have you ever left something on the counter for a few minutes? They make it their mission to knock it on the floor. So I fully believe this fluffy little meow box wanted to make his presence known in an effort to rat out his owner.

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“I realized during the pandemic,” he told Kotb, “everyone talks about a ‘work-life balance.’ But that almost creates the idea that your work and your life are two separate things. When in fact, I came to realize during the pandemic that it’s just a ‘life-life balance.’ It’s just your life.”

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It's no secret that everyone could use a little kindness in their lives and it can come in many forms. Sometimes it's the neighbor cutting your grass when your husband's away and you're too busy to get to it yourself. Other times it's sending a card to the elderly widow down the street.

One woman in Arkansas has taken to spreading kindness through writing letters to strangers. Allison Bond, 25, started writing letters over a year ago during COVID-19 when she couldn't attend school due to her medical condition. Bond has cerebral palsy and is at greater risk for serious illness should she contract the virus. Writing letters was an act of kindness that didn't require a trip out of the house.

Bond began by writing to soldiers and inmates. In fact, the first letter she received back was from a soldier. Bond told 5News, "I have one framed from a soldier. He had all his battle buddies sign it. So I framed it so I could put it up." She's kept every letter she's received.

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