Crying over spilt milk

 ‘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.

Breast pump and nipple shields. 18th century. From the Wellcome images collection

Breast pump and nipple shields. 18th century. From the Wellcome images collection

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.

Sweet almond oil; bicarbonate of soda; beeswax; cinnamon stick

Sweet almond oil; bicarbonate of soda; beeswax; cinnamon stick

–         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.

Mixing the preparation

Mixing the preparation

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!

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This entry was posted in Cosmetics, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, Homemade remedies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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