Infant formula: the superfood you never think about

Baby formula has been front-page news in the United States lately, as the closure of one of the nation’s largest manufacturing plants due to contamination has sparked a serious shortage. As the US Food and Drug Administration seeks new sources of infant formula abroad, flies in emergency supplies and tries to help get the plant back up and running, parents are struggling to get what they need to feed their babies.

The situation is shocking – for one thing, it raises questions about why anything as essential as formula is vulnerable to the woes of any single manufacturer – and it has many people curious what parents did the in the past, before huge companies made the product that has become a lynchpin in so many lives.

Unfortunately, today’s parents are far from the first people in history to have to deal with this problem. The first widely marketed infant formula, called Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies, arrived in the 1860s, but people have been trying to find safe alternatives to breastmilk for millennia.

In the graves of young babies dating from as long as 6,000 years ago, archaeologists have uncovered curious little horn-shaped objects, thought at first to be tools for filling oil lamps. But chemical analyses have revealed that at least some of these were filled not with oil but with the milk of ruminants, like cows or sheep. They seem likely to be the infants’ feeding vessels, buried alongside them.

Because the ugly truth is that breastfeeding does not always work – not then, not now. It is a glitchy, evolved system; it’s almost as if our bodies have decided where anything that kills less than 50% of the people involved is good enough to keep going. Some people’s bodies don’t make enough milk to sustain a child. Some babies are born unable to latch correctly onto the breast. Many women’s nipples are not a good match for their babies’ mouths – in a tragic episode recorded in the diary of Samuel Pepys, the great diarist of 1660s London, he describes a new mother as having no nipples, perhaps a way of describing what today are called inverted nipples, which can make breastfeeding more difficult. Her baby soon died.

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Before modern medicine, babies died all the time, for all sorts of reasons. But if the baby and the mother could not get enough milk out of the breast, it was often a shortcut to the grave for the infant, because the alternatives were not great. In the early 19th Century, poor hygiene of feeding vessels and unsafe animal milk storage led to the deaths of a third of babies fed by bottle, according to one account.

Sometimes, another lactating woman was available, and for many babies professional “wet nurses” were their saving grace. At various times throughout history, wet nurses – women who breastfeed babies professionally – have existed as a thriving industry of their own, complete with references and medical exams. But once bottles that could be sterilised and rubber nipples were invented, later on in the 19th Century, European and US parents seem to have stepped away from wet nursing as an alternative. Now the feeding vessels could be made safe: it was time, instead, to think about the contents.

Infant formula: the superfood you never think about

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