The History of Human Milk, the Most Controversial of All Bodily Fluids

The oldest profession isn't what you thought, and other myths about breastfeeding that have been persisting for thousands of years

Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm
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How the Milky Way was created. Now you know
Hera breastfeeding Hercules: How the Milky Way was created. Now you know. Peter Paul RubensCredit: Museo del Prado
Terry Madenholm
Terry Madenholm

The history of breastfeeding is fascinating and not as linear as one might think.

From the earliest days, breastmilk has been regarded as the best food option for a newborn. For ancient Egyptians, it was seen as the nectar of gods that gave life, strength, and was linked to longevity. In Greek mythology, it was the mighty queen-goddess Hera herself who breastfed Heracles (by feeding the child, the goddess unwittingly gave him divine strength), until the infant bit her nipple, upon which she pushed him away, spilling her milk across the nocturnal sky which led to the formation of the Milky Way (so the story goes).

Countless Graeco-Roman breast-shaped votives have been uncovered. These votives are often interpreted as thanks for healing of breast ailments, or as fertility symbols. But in societies where no real alternative to breast milk existed, it is plausible that they may have been dedicated in gratitude for successful lactation.

Failure of lactation was certainly a concern in the ancient world and we find medical texts record numerous recipes to help increase the milk supply.

“In Latin, the lettuce was the lactuca, literally the ‘milky plant’. Its sap is milky white, and that was thought to increase the milk supply,” explains Dr Laurence Totelin, ancient pharmacology and gynaecology researcher at Cardiff University, adding, “Another example is a plant called polugalon in Greek, which literally means ‘much milk’. That plant is known today as ‘milkwort’, which points to the longevity of these beliefs.”

We also find ancient texts on the nature of the milk itself. The “first milk”, colostrum, was often distrusted; as a result ancient Greek and Roman babies may not have been fed by their mothers during the first two days of their lives. We find ancient recommendations to give honey or the milk of another woman as a replacement, since the colostrum was judged unfit for consumption. Since then, studies have revealed that the colostrum is in fact the richest in antibodies, protecting babies from infections, and also provides essential nutrients.

Danae with the infant Perseus and fishermen, image on a Pompeii wallCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, in some parts of the world, to this day people let newborns fast first, following an archaic belief that the first milk is dangerous, based on the same reasoning as Soranus almost 2,000 years ago who described it as “unwholesome, too cheese-like, not prepared to perfection” by the mother’s agitated- postpartum body and therefore hard for the baby to digest.

Physicians of yore seem to have been well aware of the impact of a healthy diet on the production of a healthy milk supply. Pliny highlights the impact that a mother has on the quality of the milk, writing that even the best milk produced for twin boys is only of real value if the mother sticks to a healthy diet.

“There were also a series of rules surrounding breastfeeding like avoidance of sexual intercourse and avoidance of certain foods and drinks, which also point to the fact that breastfeeding had to be learned, that it was a socially-constructed practice,” Totelin tells Haaretz – which is still the case today. Expectant mothers in Israel are offered a course in breast-feeding, stressing not only its advantages to mother and child, but practical aspects to minimize frustrations and pain.

Unisex breast milk, really?

Other beliefs happen to be more investigative and foresightful. Pliny the Elder writes in his “Natural History” that the nutritional quality of the milk was determined by the sex of the baby for which it was produced.

“The milk of a woman who had had a boy was considered to be a very powerful substance in antiquity. That is because boys were generally seen as superior to girls: to have carried a boy during pregnancy presumably led to the production of a superior type of milk,” reveals Totelin.

MilkwortCredit: Gail Hampshire, Wikimedia Commons

Milk produced for a baby girl was less appreciated. Rather than confine it to the nourishment of a newborn, “girl’s milk” was used for cosmetic purposes, especially for curing acne (turns out that our “love affair” with spots has a very long history).

Despite being wrong about colostrum, the ancients seemed to have remarkable insight into the gender aspect of the milk, and for once the misogyny of ancient writers led them to some correct assumptions.

Researchers have confirmed that milk composition varies depending on the infant’s gender and on the mother’s physical state (understanding those differences can also give insights into human evolution).

The composition of the milk not only has a direct impact on the infant’s development but also influences the baby’s temperament, which may persist for the rest of life. Tailored by nature to meet the different development needs of the sexes, breast milk is a personalized product hence some experts believe industrial formulas should come in boy and girl forms.

“We have good reason to be skeptical of a one-size-fits-all formula,” said Prof Katie Hinde, director of the Comparative Lactation Lab in the Center for Evolution and Medicine and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. “The recipes for milk for sons and daughters may be different, and the difference may be greater depending on where the mother is at in her reproductive career,” said Hinde, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

Boys and girls have different developmental trajectories, so if they don’t get what they need, their development will not be optimal, she elaborated.

Fountain in Batumi, showing statues of naked women with water coming out of their breast representing mermaids.Credit: MehmetO / Shutterstock.com
Representation of a mother nursing her child. Cupisnique bottle (1250 BC- 1 C.E.)Credit: Juan Pablo Murrugarra / Museo Larco, ML040342

Despite the indisputable evidence, multinational baby nutrition companies, the largest being Nestlé, still provide only unisex baby formula.

Hinde, an evolutionary biologist and advocate for breastfeeding, spoke about the dynamic interactions between mothers, milk, and infants at the 2016 TED conference and a year later accepted an invitation from Nestlé to speak at the 90th Nestlé Nutrition Workshop, on “Human Milk: Composition, Clinical Benefit s and Future Opportunities” at Lausanne, Switzerland.

Until recently the multinational food company advertised its infant milk formulas as having “identical structure” to breast milk and also had different formulations in different countries (with and without sucrose and flavorings), but no genderized formula.

Mother breastfeeding a baby in the presence of the father. Detail from the sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, who died as a young childCredit: Marie-Lan Nguyen / collection of Giampietro Campana di Cavelli / Musée du Louvre

One of the oldest professions: Wet nurse

With or without sugar, baby formula at least solves one problem. Mothers in ancient times didn’t have many alternatives to breastfeeding. They had to rely on other women when their milk failed them or when a woman died in childbirth.

As early as Babylonian times wet nurses were employed, making it likely the oldest other profession in the world (despite the assumption that engaging in sexual activity for compensation came first).

In Greek times, a perfect wet nurse would be not younger than 20 or older than 40. She would have already given birth at least twice or three times, ideally nursed children of the same sex, and be plump with medium-sized breasts. The model wet nurse abstained from sexual intercourse (it was feared that intercourse suppresses milk as well as the feelings for the child) and wine.

Amulet of Isis nursing HorusCredit: Rama, Wikimedia Commons

“We also find in our sources reflections on the hierarchies of wet-nurses and their milk: a good wet-nurse should have a good temper, be prudent, clean, gentle, be well-nourished, and should not be a foreigner,” Totelin adds.

Despite insisting on moral qualities, the ancient physicians did not seem to deliberate over wet-nurse’s social status: whether she should be a free woman or a slave. This is something of a paradox since breastfeeding was believed to transmit genetic traits.

“There was a lot of anxiety among ancient upper classes about wet nurses, and how they could pass on their poor genes. Yet, many upper-class women didn’t breastfeed,” tells Totelin. “First, employing a wet nurse might have been a status symbol. Second, as breastfeeding was believed in antiquity to have a contraceptive effect, upper-class families might have decided that women should not breastfeed so that they could become pregnant again faster,” she says.

The reasons for the popularity of wet nurses were undoubtedly varied, from husbands and women themselves being concerned about the appearance of their breasts, husbands worried about their wives losing interest in them by prioritizing the child over them, to compromising their wives’ fertility.

The “employment” of slave wet nurses seems to imply that no physical and moral differentiation was made between a free and a slave nurse. It is plausible that slave nurses were “employed” specifically to take care of slave children under the “auspices” of wealthy families. This could have been due to “owners” having one woman nurse multiple infants while preventing others from breastfeeding, so that they would return to work and to full fertility faster (owning someone also meant owning their body cycles).

Depiction of a couple sexually engaged while the woman is breastfeeding. Mochica bottle (1-800 C.E.)Credit: Juan Pablo Murrugarra / Museo Larco, ML004258

Historians have uncovered nursing contracts ranging from 18 B.C.E. to 308 C.E. Of the 34 surviving from Roman Egypt, seven are regarding free infants and the remaining 27, slave children (this latter group is further split between ‘foundlings’ and ‘slave’s offspring’).

One such contract dates to 13 B.C.E. and states that a wet nurse shall breastfeed an orphan baby girl taken on as a slave by a woman named Isidora. The contract specifies the length for her service (16 months), pay, and specifies that the wet-nurse will take proper care both of herself and the child, will not injure her milk, will refrain both from sexual activity and from becoming pregnant, and from suckling another child.

In any case, wet-nurses surely saved countless lives, often paying a high price. Undoubtedly, many also sacrificed the well-being of their own children.

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