Whether because of personal choice or necessity, there are many reasons a mother may choose to formula feed her baby – but have you ever thought about how it started getting made in the first place?
For centuries, parents have needed access to alternatives to breastfeeding, often in cases where the mother could not produce breast milk or where the mother had died during childbirth. In these cases, babies often starved if there was no access to a wet nurse – a woman who breastfeeds another woman’s child.
Parents, desperate to feed their babies, would mix up concoctions using everything from wheat to honey, evaporated milk to various animal products – but often these were not nutritionally sound. This led to a high infant mortality rate, and babies suffering from rickets, malnutrition and other ailments.
The first formulas
In the 1860s, the first infant formula, , was produced by German scientist Justus von Liebig – first in liquid form and then later in powdered form, using cow’s milk, wheat, potassium bicarbonate and malt. It was prohibitively expensive for most people, but its success meant that other companies soon jumped on the bandwagon and began to produce similar products, including Nestle’s Milk.
Within 20 years, many companies had developed and marketed infant formulas, with some 27 patented brands of infant food on the market. The problem was that most spoiled quickly and many didn’t contain the nutrients required by babies for optimal growth and development.
As the 1800s drew to a close, more sanitary production processes were developed, and offerings such as condensed milk (cow’s milk that has had the water removed, not the tins of sweet stuff we South Africans know it as!) were developed and this led to further the popularity of bottle-feeding.
The feeding bottle
Historically, parents without a wet nurse had used also devices made from wood, clay, ceramics, and a cow’s horn to feed their babies. These were difficult to clean and often led to infections as bacteria built up in these rudimentary bottles.
In the Victorian era, there was a bottle invented that has now become known as the “Murder Bottle”. While mothers during this time thought that they were feeding their infants in the best way possible, they were unknowingly causing their infants’ deaths.
The murder bottle was appealing to mothers as it allowed the infant to feed themselves, with little help from the mother. However, these bottles were very difficult to clean and became incubators for deadly bacteria to grow. Infants would then drink from these bottles and become ill and sometimes die from an infection.
The basic baby bottle as we know it today was introduced in the 19th century. Bottles were made from glass, and teats evolved from cork nipples (with ‘ivory pins at air inlets to ensure regular flow’) in 1850s France, to the first rubber nipple, which was introduced in India at around the same time. By the beginning of the 20th century, rubber nipples had been refined and were widely used.
The development of this modern feeding bottle was a crucial factor in the increasing popularity of artificial feeding at this time.
The formulation of modern formula milk
During the first half of the 20th century, with the new scientific understanding of the necessity of vitamins and micro-nutrients in human diets, the nutritional content of formula really improved. Formula was also becoming increasingly affordable and safe due to improved production processes, making it an easier choice for parents. Alfred Bosworth created Similac (standing for ‘similar to lactation’), and several other formulas were then released over the next few decades. And with rising incomes and standards of living in the Western world, more and more homes were serviced by clean, chlorinated water and could also afford refrigerators for safe and hygienic storage.
A significant step in the development of modern formula milk was the development of non-milk-based formulas for babies who are allergic to cow’s milk. In 1929, parents were able to purchase the first soy formula. Later, this formula was fortified with vitamins to make it more nutritious.
Similac was reformulated in 1951, making it more concentrated, and Mead Johnson released Enfamil (‘infant meal’) in 1959. In the early 1960s, commercial formulas became the common choice among parents and practitioners in the United States, and by the 1970s, evaporated milk formulas were hardly used.
Controversy and contention
At this time, inexpensive formula was made available to paediatricians and hospitals, and formula was aggressively marketed in developing countries. Many doctors recommended formula over breastmilk for babies. The period between 1930 and 1970 saw a steady decline in breastfeeding in favour of a corresponding rise in formula feeding.
However, during the 1970s, a pro-breastfeeding movement began, with organisations like the La Leche League creating public awareness around the health benefits of breastmilk. UNICEF and the World Health Organization also began working towards instituting regulations in formula advertising, and by 1979, the International Baby Food Network was formed, which advocated for the ethical marketing of breastfeeding alternatives around the world.
A medical miracle
Ultimately, breastmilk is the medically preferred method to feed babies. But when looking at how far we have come in the development of infant formulas, we also cannot deny that modern formula has saved many babies’ lives – babies who cannot be breastfed, for whatever reason.
However you choose to feed your baby, by bottle or breast, we should be pleased to be living in modern times, where formula is a lot safer and more nutritious, giving our babies what they need in order to grow up into strong and healthy adults.