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."
Improved communications, especially printing, enabled intensive commercial promotion of artificial milks. Financial support of hospitals and physicians by manufacturers also hastened the decline in breastfeeding. Milk manufacturers also began campaigns in other countries to bring our “better” and “safer” method of feeding babies.
Once women were proving themselves in the workplace as equals to men feminism was born. Especially in the 1960s feminists encouraged women get away from their babies and start living their lives. It’s ironic that feminism, the concept of women supporting each other, actually created a situation where women who chose to stay with their babies and feed them naturally were looked down upon and even shamed for being anti-progressive to women’s rights. As a consequence, we ended up with a widespread loss of understanding of its importance and a declining ability of health professionals to support it. It was the perfect opportunity for formula companies to aggressively advertise and slip money into the pockets of doctors.
By the late-1930’s, the use of commercially manufactured breast milk substitutes became very common, especially in developed countries. Because they were unaware of how grossly inferior these artificial substitutes were, physicians advocated for bottle feeding over breastfeeding for many mothers. The effects of the promotion of bottle feeding and breast milk substitutes became evident during the post-World War II baby boom (1946-1956), when breastfeeding rates at hospital discharge dropped to 25%.
After that time there was a rebirth of breastfeeding, which many believe was due to the efforts of a small, but vocal group of women at that time considered fanatics, La Leche League International. Slowly but surely the news spread that breast was best and many others joined the crusade to get breastfeeding normalized. By 1982 approximately 62% were breastfeeding in the hospital and 27% at six months. Currently in-hospital breastfeeding rates are around 70%.
Ultimately, both good and bad consequences came from women being called to the labor force. These days women can get a job doing almost anything that a man can, and no one can deny that the feminist movement led to women achieving greater rights and being treated like equals. It is simply unfortunate and sad that in order for that to happen, many babies had to be left behind with an artificial breast propped in their mouths. This history of breastfeeding and infant formula also raises a red flag about the intentions of formula companies and shows that they have historically put their wallets before their concern for infant health. Formula is a blessing for babies who are unable to receive breast milk, but the companies that manufacture it have proven time and time again that they are not to be trusted.