I was born in 1953, a year when slightly more than 1 in 4 American women attempted to breast feed their babies.
My mother really did try to nurse me, though. I know this for a fact because I have a copy of my birth record from Mercy Hospital in Dubuque, Iowa, and there on page 2 is my “Record of Feedings,” check-marked and X’d by an anonymous parade of nurses over my one-week stay in the newborn nursery.
The Record of Feedings is an unadorned, two-columned, two-word chart. The left-hand column is headed “Time”; on the right, “Amount.” There is no space to comment, as there would be today, about how well a newborn baby latched on to his mother’s nipple, or what holds a mother had found to work best, or whether her breasts were filling with milk. The Record is a stark comment on how regimented things must have been there at Mercy as the Baby Boom neared its peak, and how indifferent—not to say hostile—the world of maternity care was to breastfeeding at the time.
The “Time” column on my feeding record starts at exactly 5 p.m. on March 18, 1953. The “Amount” column kicks in then, too. My first recorded meal was precisely “3 ounces”—no more, no less. Exactly what I slugged down goes without mention, but given the era I’d put my money on one of the dozen or so infant formulas—maybe a commercial brand, or a Mercy Hospital home brew of some kind—that were popular at the time.
And that’s pretty much it, as far as my feedings went. Exactly every four hours from that first meal until I was discharged home nearly a week later—39 feedings in all, a grand total of 117 ounces—I dutifully downed three ounces of formula without a whimper, fuss, or spit-up, or at least none that merited the tiniest jot in my chart. Such a good baby I was!
But there’s a faint, poignant addition to those otherwise sterile columns and checkmarks. Off to the left of the Record of Feeding, awkwardly squeezed between my initial physical exam and a list of things the nurses gave me (castor oil to rev up my newborn bowels, for example), are four entries–the only written-out nurses’ notes of the week–scrawled in two different hands. “Tried to breast feed,” the first one reads. Then: “Tried to nurse.” A one-word entry follows: “Again.” And, finally, underlined: “Took a bottle.”
Is it my imagination, or is that last entry–that “Took a bottle”–written with the hint of a self-satisfied smirk? I say this because my mother still remembers the shrugs and rolled eyes that greeted her attempts to put me to breast, and the weary comment made by the strong-armed nurse who “helped” her after one final, fruitless attempt.
“Look, dear,” the woman said with a grunt as she wound a binding sheet tightly around my mother’s chest. “This is why we have cows.”
* * * * *
Breastfeeding continued its long, slow decline for another quarter century, reaching bottom in 1972, when nearly 90% of American babies went straight to formula.
So, what’s the state of breastfeeding today? A look at the Centers for Disease Control’s new “Breastfeeding Report Card” is coming right up…