Whether or not mothers should nurse their own children has been a subject of debate from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome through all of modern European history to the present day. Paul Doolan reviews the arguments that have been presented over the centuries and the way in which fashions have changed.
In 2007 alone, according to the United Nations International Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF), one and a half million babies died who otherwise might not have done if they had been breastfed: a figure that compares with the number of those murdered at Auschwitz. The ‘bottle versus the breast’ controversy has raged for over a hundred years, but the no less contentious ‘mother versus wet nurse’ debate goes back much further in history.
Obviously, before the arrival of farming, all human infants were breastfed. Since the dawn of homo sapiens there was no other choice. As Valerie Fildes, the medical historian, puts it: ‘Either an infant was breastfed by its mother, or some other mother, or it died.’ Romulus and Remus could count themselves very lucky. The ancient Egyptians recognized the vital importance of breastfeeding. Very early images show the goddess Isis suckling her son Horos and thereby, symbolically, the pharaoh. He is breastfed at birth, at his coronation and at his death. At each of these critical junctures in his life it is breast milk that provides him with spiritual nourishment and bestows immortality. The Egyptian concept of sacred milk was widespread in the Greco-Roman world where we find tombs containing statuettes of divine nursing mothers like Demeter, Gaia and Hera. The first Christian images of breastfeeding are already to be found in the catacombs of Rome, where the Virgin Mary nurses Jesus.