Friday, July 30, 2010

A History Lesson: Breastfeeding and World War II

Photo credit: Jennifer James

World War II is Responsible for the Decline of Breastfeeding in the U.S.


Infant formula was invented by Henri Nestle in 1860, but it didn’t actually become popular until the 1940s. The main cause for this sudden increase in popularity was World War II. Before the war the vast majority of women were homemakers who stayed home with their children and left the jobs to the men. As the war continued, women were called to the workforce to support their country by doing the jobs that men who went overseas to fight had left behind. In fact, the number of women in the labor force increased 210% from 1940 to 1985. It was this sudden desire and ability for women to leave the housewife life behind that formula companies saw and capitalized on by starting huge advertisement and free sample campaigns to normalize bottle feeding and, of course, get rich in the process.

Kathryn Davis, age 60, is the daughter of a decorated WWII veteran. A self-proclaimed history buff, Kathryn has spent her entire life studying WWII and its effects on the population of the United States:

"I think World War II was the biggest influence on the decline of breastfeeding. It was the first time in U.S. history that women could really enter the workforce. They needed them to build the planes, bombs, tanks, and munitions but if they were breastfeeding babies they couldn't do that on the scale needed. Formula and bottles became quite popular at that time because they needed to be able to leave their babies behind to help the war efforts. The baby boomer generation is really the first generation to have been bottle fed on the large scale. The attitude was that the more intelligent, educated, and sophisticated people bottlefed. If you saw someone breastfeeding you automatically assumed that they were an ignorant country bumpkin. It wasn't that breastfeeding was uncommon, it’s just that the bottle was more common. When my sister had her kids in the 60s they were automatically bottlefed and she was even given a shot to dry up her milk. By the time the 80s came around and I was having my children people were beginning to become more educated about breastfeeding. My doctor didn't influence me either way but basically told me that breastfeeding for the first month was good enough. Of course, I was given tons of formula samples and free bottles at every doctor visit."

Nurses Preparing Formula Bottles in the Hospital, 1942

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