This article has been peer-reviewed under the direction of Professors Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge (University of Victoria). It forms part of the Great Expectations Pregnancy Project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
[I]t is the bounden duty of every woman to nurse her own child; and the mother who, through indolence or carelessness, neglects to perform this duty, incurs a vast amount of responsibility, deprives herself of a sweet privilege, and robs her infant of that nourishment which God designed for its special use and support. (Vine, Mother and Child, 2)
However anxious some mothers may be to bring up their offspring at the breast, it may be absolutely necessary, both for their own and their child’s safety, to forego this privilege.… The best thing undoubtedly to be done in such … case[s] is to procure a strong and vigorous wet-nurse for the child. (Black, The Young Wife’s Advice Book, 83–4)
[A] child is far easier got into good habits if it is brought up from its birth by the bottle, than if it be nursed. (Panton, The Way They Should Go, 43)
Infant feeding, like other aspects of Victorian motherhood, was closely scrutinised and the subject of much conflicting advice in nineteenth-century Britain. Class and gender ideologies, public health concerns, a burgeoning market for advice manuals, social anxieties, and medical developments and understandings coalesced to exert various and sometimes—as the three quotations above illustrate—contradictory pressures on mothers with regards to their decisions about infant feeding. The commercialization of infant feeding, including the advertising of infant formula and bottles, as well as wider shifts in attitudes towards mothering exerted a significant influence on perspectives towards this issue in the latter decades of the period in particular, and this is reflected in the discourses on infant feeding in late Victorian advice literature. Across the course of the nineteenth century, then, attitudes towards and trends around infant feeding shifted in response to some of these varying factors. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it became “fashionable” for upper-class mothers to nurse their own children—a trend alluded to in Maria Edgeworth’s novel, Belinda (1801), in which the character of Lady Delacour reflects on her own experience to the eponymous heroine: “It was the fashion at this time for fine mothers to suckle their own children— so much the worse for the poor brats.—Fine nurses never make fine children” (85). This attitude was later echoed by Queen Victoria, who preferred to hire wet nurses to feed her nine children. In the early Victorian period, an expanding market for advice literature for mothers contributed to increasing pressure on mothers to nurse their own children, but the developing market for infant formula (often comprised of some questionable and sometimes dangerous ingredients) exerted a competing pressure, hence Victorian mothers had to negotiate these various attitudes, trends, and practices in relation to the feeding of their children. In the increasingly public debates surrounding this issue, we find the origins of the often-vexed discussions over infant feeding which continue today.
There were three options available to Victorian mothers: maternal breastfeeding, wet nursing (the employment of another woman to breastfeed the baby), and “hand” (bottle or spoon) feeding. The pros and cons of each of these methods were widely debated, and these discourses contributed to social and cultural constructions of “good” and “bad” mothers. Beyond such social judgments, choices about infant feeding could have potentially serious—even fatal—implications: infant mortality averaged approximately 15 percent throughout the Victorian period, and tended to be higher in urban, industrial towns (see Reynolds). Limited understanding around basic hygiene practices linked to infant feeding was undoubtedly a contributing factor to mortality.
The Young Mother, by Charles West Cope, 1845. Click on the image to enlarge it and for more information about it.
Maternal breastfeeding was particularly associated with Victorian notions of idealised maternity. Medical practitioners and advice literature (the latter often authored by the former) generally encouraged mothers to breastfeed their own children, positioning this as a maternal, social, and even religious duty. The Mother’s Thorough Resource Book (1860) was typical in this respect, advising the reader that “the natural food of an infant for the first five or six months of its existence is the milk of the mother, and none other than this is required; nor can any equivalent be substituted” (40). Lionel Weatherly’s The Young Wife’s Own Book (1882) echoes this, and highlights the benefits compared to other methods of feeding:
The mother’s milk is the proper food for her babe, and it is beyond doubt that the rate of infant mortality among those who are nursed by the mother is less than among those suckled by a wet-nurse, and far less than among those who are weaned from birth … [E]very mother should consider it her absolute duty … to suckle her infant for at least six months. 
Victorian fiction often reinforced these messages through their depictions of breastfeeding mothers. In some novels, breastfeeding is portrayed as a means of restoring maternal tranquillity. In W. M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–48), for example, Amelia finds solace in breastfeeding her son following the death of her husband:
It was her life which the baby drank in from her bosom. Of nights, and when alone, she had stealthy and intense raptures of motherly love, such as God’s marvellous care has awarded to the female instinct—joys how far higher and lower than reason—blind beautiful devotions which only women’s hearts know. 
Similarly, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), the troubled heroine is pacified through the act of breastfeeding: “’till she held her baby to her breast, she bitterly wished that she were free from the duties and chains of matrimony. But the touch of its waxen fingers, the hold of its little mouth, made her relax into docility and gentleness” (343). Allusions such as these highlight the relationship between infant feeding and wider Victorian discourses of femininity—in particular, those idealized images of wifehood and motherhood perpetuated by much Victorian literature and culture. Though in many respects removed from the lived experience of nineteenth-century women, such idealizations exerted significant pressure on women and in some respects worked—in conjunction with the law—to constrain their freedom.
Mothers were not only strongly encouraged to breastfeed but were also given a wealth of advice on how best to do so in order to promote both infant and maternal health. This advice extended to strictures on women’s behaviour during periods of lactation, as well as guidance on everything from diet and exercise to the frequency of feeds. Many commentators advised following a strict feeding regime, and cautioned against overfeeding, which was deemed injurious to both mother and baby. The Mother’s Thorough Resource Book was amongst those to warn against the practice of breastfeeding throughout the night, noting that “the mother’s health … through sleepless nights, would soon become deranged, and the infant would also suffer from the deleterious influence this would have upon the milk” (48). Women were also advised not to breastfeed for too long, with some commentators suggesting babies should be fully weaned at nine months, and advising that “prolonged nursing hurts both child and mother” (Chavasse 251). For some women, though, extended breastfeeding was used in an attempt to prevent further pregnancies at a time when reliable methods of contraception were scarce.
Not all mothers were able to breastfeed their children. Maternal mortality rates, which remained relative steady at around 0.5 percent throughout the Victorian period, denied some babies the opportunity of maternal breastfeeding (see Loudon). Other mothers suffering from poor physical or mental health were discouraged from breastfeeding. C. H. Routh, in Infant Feeding and Its Influence On Life (1879), summarizes the circumstances in which women should not breastfeed, including when she is suffering from certain diseases, including tuberculosis, syphilis, and cancer, when the “mother’s milk does not agree with the child” (104), when there is a “deficiency of milk” (107), and when the mother is “utterly exhausted by oversuckling” (107). Lactation was sometimes associated with the onset of mental illness, and several works advise women with a family history of or predisposition to insanity against breastfeeding.
"A mother breastfeeding her child in a cottage while her dog sits at her feet," 1873. Etching by C. Lewis after a pen and ink sketch Highland Nurse by E. H. Landseer. Click on the image to enlarge it and for more information about it.
Maternal breastfeeding could also prove challenging, if not impossible, for working mothers. Until the 1891 Factory Act, which prohibited employers from employing women within four weeks of giving birth, there was no legal protection for working mothers, who, out of financial necessity, might be forced to return to work only a short time after delivery. In 1844, an article in The Spectator railed against "the most horrible cruelty which is practised … upon mothers who give suck to children, and who are dragged from the cradles of their babes to spend the day in the factory, with their breasts boiling over with milk, and their babes crying at home for that nutrient" (341). For these mothers, the employment of a wet nurse or feeding “by hand” often represented their only viable options.
Some women, though, despite the social and cultural pressures to which they were subject, preferred not to breastfeed — out of choice, rather than necessity. Amongst these was Queen Victoria herself, who viewed maternal breastfeeding with distaste, and not only hired wet nurses to feed her own nine children, but was critical of her daughter, Princess Alice, when she elected to breastfeed her own children, declaring in a letter to her that “[a] child can never be as well nursed by a lady of rank and nervous and refined temperament — for the less feeling and more like an animal the wet nurse is, the better for the child” (quoted in Pakula 221). This assertion points to a relatively common view amongst the aristocracy in particular, positioning them as too “refined” to suckle their own children (as suggested by Edgeworth’s Lady Delacour). For much of the period, even as most commentators strongly advocated maternal breastfeeding, many amongst the upper classes continued to employ wet nurses.
Queen Victoria’s refusal to breastfeed was thus partly rooted in class ideologies and partly in an aristocratic tradition extending back several generations. This position against maternal breastfeeding drew repeated criticism from Victorian commentators. An article in The Lancet in 1850 referred to the “objectionable practice so prevalent among the upper and middle ranks in this country, of employing wet nurses, instead of following the true dictates of nature, which enjoin each mother to suckle her own offspring” (Webster 513). The Mother’s Thorough Resource Book declared that “the hiring of a wet-nurse is justifiable only on the score of physical incapacity. Mere expediency and convenience, the dictates of fashion, and the calls of pleasure, are alike unworthy and selfish motives to induce a mother to forego this most sacred of duties” (50). Queen Victoria’s privileged position meant she was able to hire wet nurses to live within the royal household, but towards the other end of the socio-economic scale, babies were often “put out” to nurse: sent to live with wet nurses whilst they were breastfed. Whilst this inevitably led to a separation between mother and child, it did avoid the problem of wet nurses having to leave their own children in order to provide paid nourishment for other women’s babies. This was typically the case amongst the wealthier classes, who generally did not permit resident wet nurses to bring their own babies with them into their employers’ homes. Consequently, the babies of these wet nurses were either sent out to nurse themselves or raised by hand. There were widespread concerns about the fate of these children, whose mothers’ milk was being used to nourish the infants of the upper classes.
Illustration of a drunken wet nurse about to give the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) a drop of alcohol as a horrified Queen Victoria and Prince Albert burst in on the scene. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
As with maternal breastfeeding, there was a wealth of stringent guidance available on the hiring of wet nurses: on their general health, marital status, moral character, diet, behaviour, and even their appearance. Indeed, the figure of the wet nurse provoked particular anxiety—in part due to a belief that the health, and moral character of a child might be influenced by those of the wet nurse. Such fears were given currency by the experience of the queen herself: in 1842, the Prince of Wales’s wet nurse, Mary Ann Brough, was dismissed from the royal household (rumours suggested this was due to her consumption of alcohol). Twelve years later, apparently suffering from insanity, Brough killed six of her own children. Such events reinforced the importance of selecting wet nurses carefully, and advice manuals for mothers frequently contain detailed instructions in this respect. One fairly typical example suggests the wet nurse should be close in age and temperament to the mother, have already raised a child, and be of healthy appearance (red or “intensely black” hair are not considered appropriate). It also recommends careful examination of the breasts, the milk, and the prospective wet nurse’s own child(ren) (Barker 27–28).
Much of the advice on this subject also recommended the employment of a married woman. The use of wet nurses raised the spectre of the figure of the unmarried mother. In order to lactate, and therefore obtain work as a wet nurse, a woman needed to have given birth herself. This led to fears that some women were deliberately getting pregnant outside marriage and possibly abandoning — or worse, murdering — their own babies in order to secure employment. In this context, it is unsurprising that women advertising their services as wet nurses often stressed their married status. Commentators expressed anxiety that the profession was encouraging immoral behaviour, and that such immorality would potentially influence the wet nurses’ charges. One paper on the subject from 1859 declared “it is injurious to society to allow the fallen to be lifted to the highest position in the household, and to have bestowed upon them such privileges and such favour as should only be enjoyed by the virtuous and the pure” (Baines 5–6). The issue was also addressed in the Victorian press. One article, which appeared in the Morning Post in 1864, suggested that “a statement of the relative numbers of married and unmarried wet nurses employed in a given time would afford data for inferring the extent of the moral evils which certainly result from this practice” (“Multiple News Items” 4). At a time when women’s sexual—and maternal—behaviour was the subject of close scrutiny, the potential association between “fallenness” and the act of nursing spoke to prevailing anxieties around these issues.
Related to these anxieties about the potential fallen status of the figure of the wet nurse were concerns about “good” and “bad” mothering. Whilst the potential influence on the wet nurse’s charge was a key consideration, concerns were also raised about the fate of their own children. The same article in the Morning Post suggested that by employing a wet nurse to feed her own child, a woman “endanger[ed] the life of some other child” (“Multiple News Items” 4). This concern is also reflected in George Moore’s novel Esther Waters (1894), in which the eponymous heroine puts her own child out to an unscrupulous baby farmer in order to work as a live-in wet nurse. Her predecessor in the post lost her own child whilst nursing her charge, and when Esther discovers her son weak and seemingly neglected, she gives up her job and retrieves her child. The novel highlights the exploitative nature of wet nursing, which frequently saw the babies of wealthy women cared for at the expense of the children of poor mothers. As one article published in The Lancet in 1850 pointed out, “the hired nurse’s own infant being generally fed by hand or neglected, it very frequently … falls a sacrifice to lucre and fashion” (Webster 513). Whilst Moore’s novel finds fault with the wealthier classes, prepared to allow the sacrifice of wet nurses’ babies for the sake of their own convenience, elsewhere criticism was also reserved for the wet nurses themselves. An article in the London Review in 1860 declared that
hired wet-nurses who leave their own children to their miserable fate, and sell those children’s rights for so much gold, are neither worthy nor desirable, neither dutiful as mothers, nor respectable as women; certainly in nowise to be coveted as nurses for the children of honourable and high-minded parents. (“Infant Feeding” 279)
These anxieties may well have contributed to a decline in wet nursing in the late Victorian period. Further contributing factors here were the advancements in nutritional knowledge, as well as improvements in hygiene practices, and consequently outcomes in hand-fed infants, as well as the rapid expansion of the market for baby bottles and so-called “artificial” foods designed specifically for babies.
Despite the moral concerns around wet nursing, it was nevertheless the widespread recommended alternative to maternal breastfeeding, in cases where the latter was not possible, and was generally deemed preferable to hand feeding. For much of the period, hand feeding in particular was associated with poor outcomes in terms of both infant health and mortality. Hand or “artificial” feeding encompassed both spoon and bottle feeding and was associated with various risks—in particular from contaminated food and equipment, leading to diarrhoea in infants, a contributing factor to the relatively high levels of infant mortality. A lack of clear understanding of hygiene and the spread of germs was significant here. From the 1840s, an increasing number of products appeared on the market to assist with hand feeding, in the form of baby bottles and infant formula. Advertisements for these products appeared even in medical journals such as The Lancet, which were typically outspoken on the importance of breastfeeding. The design of the bottles often made them difficult to clean properly, in addition to which mothers were not always advised of the importance of cleaning. Mrs. Beeton, for example, suggested that “the nipple [of the baby bottle] need never be removed till replaced by a new one, which will hardly be necessary oftener than once a fortnight, though with care one will last for several weeks” (18). Both specifically designed baby formula and other liquids and foods given to young babies (such as animal milk and water — sometimes mixed with bread to make “pap”) posed a contamination risk. Contaminated water, milk, and flour were all possibilities, and there were also concerns about what else was being given to babies — in particular by unscrupulous baby farmers, who were not averse to administrating gin or opium in order to keep their charges quiet. A less serious health risk was posed by sugar, which some commentators advised should be added to milk to give to infants, with one advice book suggesting “it is an error to suppose that sugar decays the teeth” (Pedley 104). Much advice literature also expresses concerns regarding the overfeeding of hand-fed infants. As with maternal breastfeeding and wet nursing, detailed guidance on hand feeding was provided, including recommendations on the type of food that should be administered (ass’s milk was deemed to be closest to breastmilk), its sources (Vine recommended the milk be taken from a single animal if possible ), and its administration. The risks associated with hand feeding were well established. Dickens alludes to the potential dangers of this method of infant feeding in both Oliver Twist (1837–38) and Great Expectations (1860–61): both orphan-protagonists are raised “by hand,” reinforcing the idea of their survival against the odds. Despite the dangers of hand feeding, however, it remained relatively common practice throughout the Victorian period.
Two infant's feeding bottles from the Science Museum. Left: Glass, Europe 1801–1900. Right: Ceramic, England 1801–91. Ceramic Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, on the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) licence.
The conflicting perspectives on infant feeding indicate the extent to which maternal behaviour was closely monitored in Victorian Britain. All three methods detailed here were employed with varying frequency throughout the period, and all three were subject to intense scrutiny and debate—debates influenced by (and in turn, influencing) wider cultural discourses around motherhood, gender, class, and morality.
Links to related material
- Adulteration and contamination of food in Victorian England
- Contaminated milk in Victorian Britain
- "I must walk my chalks" (cartoon about a milkman)
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Created 14 July 2022