Breastmilk and other bodily fluids

UK news have been awash with breastfeeding this last week. A mum of a 12-week old baby was told to cover up while nursing at posh hotel Claridge’s. This was followed by a media frenzy, with commentators on both sides of the argument. Politician Nigel Farage, when asked for his opinion, suggested that women should perhaps ‘sit in the corner’ when breastfeeding and avoid ostentatious behaviour. This, again, added to the media frenzy and the twitter/Facebook storm.

As a form of protest, I knitted this breast. Patterns available from the British Association of Breastfeeding mothers

As a form of protest, I knitted this breast. Patterns available from the British Association of Breastfeeding mothers

People who have followed this blog for a while will know on what side of the argument I am. There is no question: a woman should be able to breastfeed her baby wherever she wants. People who suggest a woman should stay at home and breastfeed there (believe me there were some who did last week) are just offering the best recipe for an increase in already far-too-high rates of depression among new mothers. We are social beings and becoming mothers should not stop us from seeing our friends. Why should we hide in the corner because we have dared to exert our reproductive function? As for hiding the baby under a cover, most babies absolutely hate it. I should know: each time I have tried to feed my sons ‘discreetly’ under a wrap they ended up screaming the place down. I am sure most coffee shop punters would prefer the sight of a suckling baby to that of an angry Baby T or Baby G.

People object to public breastfeeding for several reasons. I don’t have the space to discuss them all – and others have done this much better than I would be able to do. Instead I will focus on the common association between breastfeeding and urinating. The argument goes like this: ‘you do not urinate in public, so why would you breasfteed in public’. However, chances are you will have seen more people (usually men) urinating in public than you will have seen mothers breastfeeding ostentatiously. Further, breastmilk and urine are two completely different bodily fluids.

Roma ex-voto from Suffolk.

Roma ex-voto from Suffolk.

The Greeks and the Romans had a much ‘better’ comparison: they compared breast-milk to menstrual blood. Or to be more correct, they believed that breast-milk was transformed (concocted) menstrual blood. Blood circulation was not fully understood until the seventeenth century. Before that, people in the West believed that blood is transformed food. The transformation takes place in the liver, and the blood is then distributed to the various organs.

Now, women of reproductive age, they thought, are not as able as men to process blood. Their blood accumulates and needs to be evacuated once a month through menstruation. Alternatively, that blood can serve to feed the growth of a foetus, and after the birth, it is transformed into milk. These theories stem from very simple observations: women who are pregnant, for the most, do not menstruate; and women who lactate, at least during the most intense period of lactation, tend not to menstruate.

A breastfeeding goddess. Second-third century CE. Bordeaux. Source: Wikipedia

A breastfeeding goddess. Second-third century CE. Bordeaux. Source: Wikipedia

As transformed menstrual blood, milk was considered a rather awesome fluid. I mean ‘awesome’ not in the modern meaning of the word, but rather in the traditional sense, whereby it creates a sense of deep admiration mingled with a form of fear. Breatsmilk figured in numerous medical remedies and in magical practices. It was a much more powerful substance than urine, which had an important role to play in ancient medical prognosis, but a relatively small role in ancient therapeutics. I have discussed several of those ancient remedies using milk in previous posts.
Today we know that breastmilk is not ‘transformed menstrual blood’, but it seems that we still consider human milk to be a different type of substance from other milks (cow’s milk, goat’s milk, etc.). We still invest it with special powers. In some ways, we are quite right to do so, as breastmilk is a substance whose complexity scientists are still trying to comprehend. On the other hand, we should perhaps demystify this substance (and the act in which that substance is exchanged from one human being to the next), and simply acknowledge that we are no different from other mammals who feed their youngs.

This entry was posted in Ancient History, Children's History, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, History of the body and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Breastmilk and other bodily fluids

  1. Helen says:

    This is absolutely fascinating – thank you so much for it!


  2. Pingback: History A'la Carte 2-12-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

  3. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #26 | Whewell's Ghost

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