Baby Feeding Practices in Ancient Times

Baby feeding practices throughout history provide a window into biological norms for feeding human infants. Although there were probably many different practices in various ancient cultures, several characteristics of feeding babies have most likely been common and regularly practiced throughout most of human history. Understanding those norms is valuable knowledge for parents and experts when making decisions about feeding babies today.

Maternal Breastfeeding

Being breastfed by the mother was the most common way of feeding babies in ancient times. Early medical texts, such as the "Papyrus Ebers" from Egypt dated around 1500 B.C., include information about breastfeeding, such as methods to increase milk supply. Artifacts, such as sculptures, also testify to the practice of breastfeeding in ancient times; pottery sculptures depicting breastfeeding have been dated as early as 3000 B.C., according to Mary Margaret Coates, author of "Tides in Breastfeeding." 1

Modern Hunter-Gatherers

Although it is difficult to know details about how breastfeeding was practiced by studying archeological evidence, hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today offer a glimpse into breastfeeding practices that have not been influenced by modern cultural norms. According to Coates, many breastfeeding experts today believe that the practices common in such societies are similar to baby feeding practices in ancient times. Mothers in these cultures breastfeed their infants frequently throughout the day and night, averaging four short feedings per hour, and continue to breastfeed until the child is between 2 and 6 years old. The age of weaning to solid foods was probably similar in ancient cultures, since the diet of those cultures -- consisting of fruit, nuts, vegetables and meat -- would be difficult for a baby to eat until after he has grown a full set of teeth around age 2.

Wet Nursing

"Wet nursing" is the practice of one woman feeding another woman's baby. This was the probably the only viable alternative to maternal breastfeeding in ancient cultures, and it was practiced fairly often. The Code of Hammurabi, from approximately 2000 B.C., includes laws for the practice of wet nursing, and Homer mentions wet nursing in his writing. Both the Bible and the Koran also include references to it. A wet nurse usually is a woman who has been breastfeeding her own child, although she can be a woman who has never breastfed but who stimulates milk production for the purpose of wet nursing. In more recent times, such as in the 16th century in Europe, using a wet nurse instead of breastfeeding your own baby became a status symbol for wealthy women, and it is likely that it was also a status symbol in some ancient cultures. The opposite was also true: in 4th century Sparta, for example, mothers were legally required to personally breastfeed their oldest sons, and using a wet-nurse could put his inheritance in jeopardy.

First Solid Foods

Many ancient cultures did not practice breastfeeding from the first day of a baby's life. Ancient physicians such as:

  • the Persian Avicenna
  • in approximately 1000 A.D.,
  • the Greek Soranus
  • in 100 A.D.
  • recommended that mothers wait a few days
  • or even a few weeks
  • before beginning to breastfeed their newborns

During the first few days of life, infants were fed a liquid such as honey, oil or wine.

Weaning to Solid Foods

As a baby grows, she naturally transitions from breastfeeding to eating solid foods. In ancient cultures, as today, the first foods introduced were probably gruels or mashed foods. Generally, the first food a baby ate as she began to wean was a food that was a staple of the culture where she lived. Because most babies probably continued breastfeeding into toddlerhood, solid food functioned as a supplement to breast milk for several years, only gradually replacing it.

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