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Breast Feeding Shifts

In the late nineteenth century, bottle feeding became increasingly more common to avoid infant mortality in urban settings. However, in the twentieth century, these trends continued due to the scientific aspect of bottle feeding, as well as the fashion of the technique. By 1956, bottle feeding was the preferred method of feeding. Mothers chose to follow the elaborate methods that it entailed – creating formulas, sterilizing bottle caps, etc. - over the more natural technique. The rate of mothers’ breast feeding at one week of age had fallen to eighteen percent (previously at above eighty percent in the 1800’s). These numbers shocked the supporters of breast feeding, and seven women decided to join together to start a movement: the La Leche League. Between the seven founders of the La Leche League they had fifty-three children which had all been raised with natural methods. The group met habitually to discuss topics such as motherhood and breast feeding.

The women believed that the new installations of science and feminism were destroying motherhood and that the social roles of women as mothers were being contested. The purpose of the League was to defend domesticity and natural mothering techniques, especially breast feeding. They wanted to bring mother and baby together again through breast feeding, and believed that it was an art that could not be compensated for by doctors or science. In 1958 the women published The Womanly Art of Breast Feeding, selling over two million copies. By 1980, the La Leche League claimed over 4,000 support groups in forty-eight countries.

In the following years, motherhood was controlled more by experts than it was by motherly instinct. In order to create an appealing argument, the League highlighted the health benefits of breast feeding, such as aiding in getting into shape after pregnancy, helping to avoid breast cancer, and providing a natural form of birth control.  These benefits attracted mothers who questioned scientific motherhood and “experts” in the realm of child rearing. Because the group was considered radical, meetings were held regularly in order to provide the members with support to remain firm in their beliefs. The incidence of breast feeding by new mothers grew from twenty percent to sixty percent from the mid 1950’s to the 1980’s. It is believed that the “hippie movement” helped people to embrace the natural aspect that the La Leche League encouraged.

During the late 1950’s, doctors were to prescribe breast feeding or bottle feeding plans, and Dr. Spock’s 1946 manual enforced this, suggesting that the two methods were equally acceptable. However, within his following revisions, it became clear that Dr. Spock favored breast feeding. Reasoning behind his support, though, changed over the years. Initially, Spock argued that the main focus of breast feeding was for nutrition, but soon changed his focus to that of mother-baby bonding. Although his 1968 revision featured a page reassuring readers that bottle feeding was still acceptable, he never supported it in terms of bonding, and no further words of encouragement were ever expressed. To further support his increasing backing for breast feeding, he spent more time on the subject; his first edition featured fourteen pages on breast feeding, while his final ninth edition featured forty-five.