‘No need to cry over spilt milk’: the person who first came up with that saying surely must never have spent half an hour trying to express an ounce of milk. So goes the ‘joke’ amongst breast-feeding mothers. To me, breast-pumps look like torture implements and I have never got on with them. I did express a bit with my elder son because I went back to work when he was five months, but did not really bother with my baby son. It’s far too much hassle. I find it easier to take the baby everywhere with me. Granted, that can sometimes involve a lot of planning, especially in finding emergency exit strategies (when a baby has pulled the hair of three senior colleagues, tried to grab two glasses of wine, and managed to grab some expensive looking nibbles at a reception at the Academies des Belles Lettres, it might be time for his mum to leave, however much she wanted to stay). But I feel it is worth it. Somehow – most – babies manage to get from their mother much more milk than any machine could achieve. I have never had to complain about my milk supply, but I have cried with exhaustion and exasperation trying to use these implements.
On the other hand, I know some women who swear by their breast-pump, and find it extremely convenient. That is the thing with breastfeeding (as with many other things in life): everyone is different. And while some women want to breastfeed, others do not. In antiquity, mothers of low income had no choice but to breastfeed (or to get a relative to breastfeed their baby), but wealthy women could employ a wet-nurse. Soranus (turn of the first and second-century CE) has a long list of ‘bullet points’ for a perfect wet-nurse:
You must choose a wet-nurse who is neither younger than twenty nor older than forty, who has already given birth two or three times, who is healthy, who leads a healthy life, of large frame, and of good colour. Her breasts must be of medium size, loose, soft, and unwrinkled; the nipples should be neither big nor too small and neither too compact nor too spongy and pouring too much milk. She must be wise, sympathetic and even-tempered, Greek and clean. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.19]
He then goes on to give explanations, sometimes quite fanciful (see here for the point on breast size), for each of these points. I don’t think I could apply as a wet-nurse if one was to follow Soranus’ advice. Of course, that advice should be taken with a pinch of salt, but hiring a wet-nurse was serious business in the ancient world. Contracts for wet-nurses have been preserved on papyrus. You can find an example here. Being a wet-nurse seems to have been a relatively well-paid, but very demanding job.
The woman who chose to hire a wet-nurse, like women who today decide not to breastfeed, had to go through a period of discomfort before her milk supply died out. A few remedies to help in that transition phase are to be found in ancient medical literature. Here are the recipes transmitted in Metrodora’s gynaecological collection (dates uncertain):
To dry out the milk of a woman: bathe her in warm sea-water; anoint with juice of thorn-apple (or some other plant); and sprinkle powdered white lead. If there is inflammation of the breast, crush the same amount of cinnamon and native sodium carbonate, which you will mix to a rose cerate; apply as a poultice to the entire breast. Or pound Cimolian or Chian clay with vinegar and apply in the same way. [Metrodora 47]
As I was researching this blog, I slowly came to the realisation that I had read ancient evidence with my modern eyes. Of course, remedies to dry out the milk must have been used by wealthy women who could afford a wet-nurse, but they would probably have had another – much more frequent – use: to dry out the milk of a woman whose baby had died. In antiquity, this incredibly sad event was much more common than it is today in the Western world. Many a woman in the past had reasons to cry over flowing milk.
I have given a go to the remedy for inflammation of the breast, but I do not recommend any of these remedies for a breastfeeding mother.
– Cinnamon: I used one small stick, which weighed 4 gr.
– Equal amount of bicarbonate of soda (having no native sodium carbonate at hand)
– Rose cerate: a cerate is a mixture made with a larger quantity of wax than oil (balms have either equal amount of wax and oil or less wax than oil). I will talk more about cerates next week, but these are the quantities I used for the present cerate
- 1.5 ounce of beeswax
- 1 ounce of sweet almond oil
- Approximately 10 drops of rose absolute
I prepared the cerate by heating the wax in a double boiler. When it had melted, I added the sweet almond oil and returned to the heat for a short time. I then whipped the preparation with a cappuccino whisk. As the preparation became very thick (as can be expected from a cerate), I switched to a manual whisk. I added the powdered cinnamon and the bicarbonate of soda. Finally, I added the rose absolute.
The combination of rose and cinnamon worked particularly well. However, I can’t say my preparation was a success. The thing is, it was not too difficult to find a cerate recipe, but these recipes don’t really say how/when to apply. My preparation turned so hard that I could easily have put a candle wick in it and used it that way. Maybe I was meant to apply it when still lukewarm and not hard? I do not know. I will have to look more into the matter in the future!