Grandmas and Breastfeeding in Antiquity and Beyond

Victorian murder bottles. The one on the right still has the remains of the tube that was almost impossible to clean.

One of the great pleasures of working in academia is to collaborate with people from different disciplines. Over the last eighteen months, I have had the great privilege to work with sociologist Heather Trickey (@HeatherTrickey) and consultant midwife Julia Sanders on a project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, on the history and sociology of infant feeding in Wales. We used historical artefacts and images relating to baby feeding (breast pumps, bottles, formula tins, adverts, etc.) to prompt discussions about this emotionally-charged topic within families. History can play a part in these discussions, as it will create a safe space in which to share opinions. For instance, people will feel much more at ease discussing hygiene issues in relation to  Victorian ‘murder bottles’ (those bottles that were impossible to wash properly and therefore became breeding grounds for bacteria) than in relation to modern sippy cups.

We were particularly keen to work with people who identified as grandparents, and interviewed around 30 Welsh grandparents about their experiences of baby feeding across the generations. It is important to work with grandparents for two reasons. First, they are very much neglected in baby feeding debates, which tend to focus on mothers. Second, grandparents strongly influence feeding choices in their children (and grown grandchildren). In particular, mothers will influence the choices of their daughters. It is quite likely that, if a grandmother has bottle-fed, her daughter will bottle-feed. However, it is possible to change people’s attitudes by opening up discussions. You can read more about our research in the following article, which is open access.

There are two fascinating ancient sources that show us that grandmothers did influence their daughters’ choices (not) to breastfeed in antiquity. The first is an account by the orator Favorinus (c. 80-160 CE), preserved in the writings of Aulus Gellius (c. 125-180 CE). Favorinus had gone to visit a friend’s wife who had recently given birth to a son. The friend, we are told, was of senatorial rank and from a very noble family. His wife had experienced a difficult labour and was extremely tired as a result. Favorinus was keen to hear how the baby would be fed: ‘I have no doubt she will breastfeed her son herself’, he exclaimed. The grandmother of the new born, however, had other plans. She wanted to fetch wet-nurses ‘in order that to the pains which she [her daughter] had suffered in childbirth they might not be added the wearisome and difficult task of nursing’ (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.1). Upon hearing this, Favorinus launched into an impassioned – and long winded – defence of maternal feeding. We do not know whether Favorinus was successful in convincing this family to opt for maternal feeding instead of entrusting their precious son to a hired hand. I hope (and that is as a defender of breastfeeding) that the grandmother took out her rolling pin and kicked out this sententious mansplainer.

Terracotta figurine of Isis feeding Harpocrates. Roman Egypt. Credit: the British Museum.

The second source about the influence of grandparents on feeding choices is a papyrus letter from Roman Egypt, dating to the late third century CE. The recipient of the letter is named Rufinus. The beginning of the letter – and the name of the sender – is lost, but we then read:

I heard that you are compelling her to breastfeed. If she wants, let the baby have a nurse, for I do not want my daughter to breastfeed. [P. Lond. 9.351, lines 2-5]

We can hypothesise that the parent who felt so adamant about their daughter’s feeding was a mother, now a grandmother. She believed (but might have been wrong) that her son-in-law was forcing her daughter to breastfeed, an act she felt her daughter should abstain from. This grandmother too may have had concerns over her daughter’s health. Alternatively, she may have considered breastfeeding to be below her daughter’s standing. For to be able to afford a wet-nurse was a sign of social standing in the ancient world.

The grandmothers in the two sources I have examined had good reasons to prevent their daughters from breastfeeding. They acted out of concern. Today, the debate might have shifted from ‘maternal feeding vs wet-nursing’ to ‘breast vs bottle’, but grandmothers still advise their daughters out of love and worry. This advice can at times be misguided or out-of-date, but it must be understood and acknowledged.


This entry was posted in Ancient History, History of the body, Papyri and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Grandmas and Breastfeeding in Antiquity and Beyond

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #34 | Whewell's Ghost

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