So I have gone back to the office… my year of maternity leave has come to an end. It can only be a bitter-sweet moment. Although it was hard work at times, I have enjoyed this year a lot. First and foremost, I had some wonderful times with my family: from climbing hills when heavily pregnant, to walking on the wind-beaten coast of North Devon carrying Baby G. in the sling in September, to visiting Chester Zoo one time too many, to telling Big-Boy T. about Aesop fables at Castle Coch for what seems the billionth time. I have also met a lot of new people I would probably never have met in other circumstances. All in all, we did tons – it was a very rich year. But one of the activities that took much of my time – perhaps even most of my time – was breastfeeding.
So much is said against breastfeeding in the press that I somewhat hesitate to write this post (and the ones that follow – there is quite a lot I want to say). So let me come clean: I started my career as a mum with very little knowledge of breastfeeding. I just wanted to give it a try. It was bloody hard (and I mean bloody in the literal sense of the word), but I got great support from the health visitor. I am also rather strong minded. When it started becoming easier (around four months after the birth of Big Boy T), I thought I may as well stick with it, and I did until he was one. Breastfeeding does have great advantages, not the least that breast-milk is free, always available, always at the right temperature, always sterile, always very comforting. By the time I had Baby G., I did not even consider anything else than breastfeeding. And it was easier the second time around.
I can’t say I have ever met a BF ‘Nazi’ or a member of the ‘Breastapo’. I have, on the other hand, met some forceful health workers who clearly had not breastfed themselves but had to follow NHS guidelines in encouraging breastfeeding. The problem is that we are dealing with a broken chain of practical knowledge. Breastfeeding cannot be explained in a book – it has to be lived. If you have never seen relatives breastfeeding, chances are you will find breastfeeding very hard. If you have never breastfed but have to explain to another woman how to do it, chances are you’ll get it wrong.
No such issues in antiquity… Then there was no choice but to breastfeed. Some very rich women did avoid breastfeeding by employing wet-nurses, but for the average woman, breastfeeding was the only option. Of course, as it the case today, not all women were blessed with an ample milk supply. As some of my friends know, it can be extremely hard work to get a good supply going (I never had that problem), and one would be ready to try anything. Health workers today often recommend fennel tea, and interestingly that was also recommended in the Greek world. Thus, the author of the treatise Diseases of Women writes (this treatise is transmitted under the name of Hippocrates, but it is unlikely Hippocrates wrote it):
When the milk has disappeared, crush leeks, soak in water, and give to drink. And let her bathe in warm water and eat leeks and cabbage. Also boil leaves of tree-medick and drink the juice as a soup. Also give to drink the seed and root of fennel: boil together with winnowed barley and butter, let it cool down, and give to drink [the list carries on for a while]. Diseases of Women 1.44
Cabbage will also be familiar to those who have breastfed, albeit in another guise: the leaves used as compresses help avoid mastitis.
Soranus (first century CE) gives few of his own remedies for milk production apart from gentle walks baths and massages, but reports that:
Mnesitheus, however, recommends vomiting twice a day, not taking into account the fact that vomiting rather causes destruction, except when one wants to set right a chronic disease. And some have used aromatic drinks and little pills, the so-called ‘milk pills’. They have also given to eat the breasts of those animals that produce much milk. Others have burnt owls and bats and sprinkled their ashes in drinks or used them to anoint the breast. Soranus, Gynaecology 2.28.
As I said, one might be tempted to do anything to get milk going, but Soranus is quite right to reject such practices as dangerous. I would love to know what the little ‘milk pills’ were made of, though. Maybe Metrodora’s collection of remedies (uncertain dates) can provide some answers, as it contains a recipe for little galactogogue pills:
To draw down woman’s milk: pepper, ginger, Ethiopian cumin [that is, nigella], seed of rue: crush the same amount of each in sweet wine. Make pastilles the weight of an obol. Give them to drink while fasting in wine and honey. And let her drink early in the morning juice of wheat with fennel root. Metrodora 44.
I have given this a go. In a wink to some of the recent bad press, I have called this Lolo’s witchy brew. ‘Lolo’ is both short for Laurence and for milk (lait) in French.
– 5 g of pepper. I used black pepper, as that is what I had in my kitchen
– 5 g of ginger (with the skin)
– 5 g nigella
– Some rue (ruta graveolens) – unfortunately I did not have much of that (under a gram). It is probably best not to use too much anyway, as large amounts of rue can be dangerous
– Some wine. I used red wine, as it tends to be sweeter than white wine
I was struck by how black most of the ingredients were. Of course, allowance must be made for the type of pepper the author of the recipe had in mind (green? black? white? etc.), but I feel this blackness, which contrasts with the yellow-white colour of the ginger, might be intentional. The principle whereby opposites cure opposites was very much active in ancient medicine. What better ingredients to use to make white milk flow than black ones. The smell was absolutely lovely, if rather pungent. I thought the final product would work better as a sort of warmed mulled wine, so I heated up some wine, with a spoonful of honey and one of the little pills. The taste was rather pleasant, if a bit too peppery, but I could never bring myself to drink this while fasting.
All together, I would not recommend this concoction to a mum who has just given birth. Most mums I know would not want wine in the early months anyway. If you are breastfeeding an older baby, you could give it a try. It does not require more than a unit of wine (if not less). If you are unsure about the use of rue, just omit it. I don’t know whether it will do any good to my milk supply (it most certainly won’t do any harm), but I am sure this will help with the cough I have had for the last week.