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Bone study shows early cessation of breastfeeding began earlier in Scotland than was previously believed


Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have led a 'significant new study' on the history of Britain’s weaning habits and have discovered that the early cessation of breastfeeding did not begin in the Victorian era, as was previously believed, but as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

Working in partnership with archaeological scientists from the University of Reading, researchers used a method called stable isotope analysis of bone, in order to reconstruct the typical age at weaning of individuals buried at Aberdeen’s St Nicholas Kirk, in the 12th to 18th centuries.

A 'sudden' reduction

This work has enabled archaeologists to gain greater insights than ever before into how infant feeding habits evolved over the centuries in a single city. They say that a clear picture emerges of a ‘sudden’ reduction in the period for which infants were breastfed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The study was led by Dr Kate Britton from the University of Aberdeen and its findings are published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. She said: “It is often thought that a relatively short period of breastfeeding – of around six months - is something that emerged later in the 18th and 19th centuries. But our study points to a very different picture with this change occurring much earlier.

Changing social norms?

“Breastfeeding and weaning practices tell us a great deal about changing ‘social norms’ and wider economic and cultural changes. They are fascinating to study because they give an insight into an area of history that is often overlooked. A lot of history is written by men, and often the experiences of women and children were given little consideration. We have 15th-century physicians making recommendations about what they perceived as best practice, or we have records about the lives of Princes and Princesses in royal nurseries, but we cannot glean a lot about the experiences of ordinary people from historical records alone.”

Unique comparisions

Dr Britton said that having such a large number of samples collected over many centuries from the same part of one city provided unique opportunity for comparison.

She said: “There have been a number of previous efforts looking into this in different parts of England, which have produced great new insights, but none before in Scotland. No other study has focused on changes through time at a single site, making it difficult to ascertain whether changes are down to different geographical regions or economies.

“By analysing our data in conjunction with the results of these previous studies, we can see that trends were very similar across England and Scotland. For example, we can see that middle class people in Aberdeen were behaving in same way as those in London workhouses a century or so later.

“We can only speculate as to why this might be but increased urbanisation, women working outside the home and cultural changes following the Reformation may be contributing factors. Furthermore, maternal nursing was seen by some as inconvenient and unfashionable, interfering with social pursuits.

“An alternative was wet-nursing, but there also seems to be a corresponding decline in the social acceptance of wet nursing in this period, with medical writers and physicians in the later medieval period and into the 16th and 17th centuries discussing the link between the personal attributes of the person feeding an infant and the baby’s character. Red-heads, for example, were to be avoided as wet-nurses as they could make a baby hot tempered with their milk.”

Mass spectometry

Chemical analysis of protein extracted from the tiny fragments of bone was led by Dr Gundula Müldner at the University of Reading, using a method called mass spectrometry.

She said: “We used established techniques to measure the trophic levels of infants, which are higher than those of their mothers or wet-nurses when exclusively breastfed but begin to drop as weaning is begins. This allows us to track the introduction of other foods and to see how rapidly the process occurs and breastfeeding ends.”

The research team conclude that the rapid nature of change and similarities across the UK across different social classes point to the driving force in weaning age as part of a broader cultural shift rather than socio-economic factors related to the choices of individual families.

Dr Müldner said: “It appears that the reduction in weaning age in the later medieval and early modern period transcended social class and predated the availability of modern artificial feeding alternatives, which did not become widespread until much later in the 19th century.

“It also seems that for whatever reason this change was rapid. What we might now consider to be a long period of breastfeeding for infants, over two years old, was common for thousands of years but came to a rapid halt around 500 years ago.

“While we cannot be sure of the cause of this change, and even if there was a single cause, it seems that the growing urban environments of the period may well have contributed to the rapidity of this change across different social groups, with the social melting pot they created likely accelerated the process.”

(painting 'A mother giving her child by breast, Gerard Dou (copy after), 1660-76) copyright Rijks Museum; photographs copyright University of Aberdeen)

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