The History of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is a practice as old as humanity itself, deeply intertwined with our history. For countless generations, it has served as the primary means of nourishing and nurturing infants. Over the centuries, the practice has evolved, reflecting shifts in culture, technology, and medical understanding.  

Early mothers instinctively provided their newborns with the essential nourishment required for survival by breastfeeding. Historical evidence actually reveals the significance of breastfeeding in ancient civilizations. In ancient Egypt, breastfeeding was depicted in hieroglyphics and was considered a sacred duty. Similarly, ancient Greek and Roman societies understood the importance of breastfeeding and associated it with maternal virtues. 

The Wet Nurse Era 

During medieval times in Europe, breastfeeding practices began to evolve due to societal changes. Noble women often delegated the task of breastfeeding their own children to wet nurses, freeing them to engage in other pursuits. While this practice ensured that infants received nourishment, it also weakened the intimate bond between mother and child. 

Wet nursing, the practice of breastfeeding another woman’s infant, has an intricate history spanning various cultures and historical periods. It wasn’t uncommon for a mother to use a wet nurse if she was unable to nurse herself. It wasn’t until much later that it took on a different dimension where Noblewomen began hiring wet nurses to breastfeed their children as it was now considered more socially acceptable for aristocratic mothers to avoid breastfeeding. 

However, as the 19th century unfolded, several factors contributed to the decline of wet nursing. Improved medical knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding, the development of safer infant formulas, and evolving social norms regarding motherhood led to a shift away from this practice. Today, wet nursing is rare in developed countries, reserved mainly for cases where the biological mother cannot breastfeed or as a personal choice among friends or family members as a gesture of support. 

The Renaissance and Enlightenment Periods 

The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods brought about significant shifts in the perception of breastfeeding. Philosophers and scholars such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau began advocating for a return to natural parenting practices, including breastfeeding. Rousseau’s ideas influenced the way mothers viewed their role in nurturing their children. 

Rousseau was a proponent of naturalism, emphasizing the importance of returning to natural, unspoiled states in various aspects of life, including education and parenting. He advocated for breastfeeding as a means to establish a strong bond between mother and child. He believed that breastfeeding was essential for nurturing the emotional connection between a mother and her infant and for promoting maternal instincts. 

Industrialization and the Rise of Infant Formula 

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th century, brought about drastic changes in family life and work patterns. As women increasingly entered the workforce, the practice of wet nursing and the introduction of infant formula became more prevalent.   

The 20th Century 

The 20th century witnessed a rollercoaster ride for breastfeeding. While breastfeeding rates decreased during the early and mid-1900s due to the widespread availability and promotion of infant formula, the latter half of the century saw a resurgence of interest in breastfeeding’s benefits. 

In 1991, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, aimed at promoting breastfeeding in healthcare settings worldwide. This initiative significantly contributed to the increase in breastfeeding rates and the recognition of its numerous health benefits for both infants and mothers. 

Breastfeeding in the 21st Century 

Today, breastfeeding continues to be a topic of great importance and debate. While the benefits of breastfeeding are well-documented, various societal factors still pose challenges to breastfeeding mothers. Balancing work and breastfeeding, addressing societal taboos, and providing support to mothers who face difficulties are all ongoing concerns. 

The 21st century has also seen a resurgence of interest in extended breastfeeding and the empowerment of mothers to make informed choices about their breastfeeding journey. 


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Some of the most common issues with modern breastfeeding include:  

  1. Breastfeeding and Work: Balancing breastfeeding with returning to work can be challenging. Some mothers may face obstacles in finding suitable places and time for pumping breast milk at the workplace, and storage and transportation of pumped milk can be challenging.
  2. Social Stigma: In some cultures and communities, breastfeeding in public is still stigmatized or considered inappropriate. This can make it difficult for mothers to breastfeed in public spaces or while out and about.
  3. Lack of Support: Support from healthcare providers, family, and friends is crucial for successful breastfeeding. Some mothers may struggle due to a lack of knowledge or encouragement from their support network.
  4. Maternal Health Issues: Maternal health problems such as postpartum depression, stress, or certain medications can impact Some medications may be incompatible with breastfeeding, and the emotional toll of postpartum depression can affect a mother’s ability to breastfeed.

The history of breastfeeding is a testament to the enduring significance of this natural and nurturing practice. From its origins to the complex societal dynamics of today, breastfeeding has evolved and adapted to changing circumstances. It has withstood the test of time, reminding us of the intimate bond between a mother and her child and the essential role that breastfeeding plays in the health and well-being of both. 

As we move forward, it is our collective responsibility to support and empower breastfeeding mothers, ensuring that this ancient tradition continues to thrive and flourish in our modern world. 


  1. Overcoming Breastfeeding Obstacles 
  2. Six Ways to Practice Self-Care When You’re Breastfeeding 
  3. Simple Solutions and Reliable Resources for Common Breastfeeding Concerns 
  4. The Ultimate Guide to Breastfeeding 
  5. Ten Tips for Restoring Milk Supply 

Vittoria Allen

Vittoria is a writer based in San Diego. A lover of good food, slow living, and a good novel, she shares her life with her husband and two daughters trying to squeeze out the beauty in every moment.