Breastfeeding in the U.S. (Part 1): A personal history

1950s: Not a breast in sight

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.

Hangin’ with my Boomer pals…

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…


Filed under Breastfeeding, Maternal-child health

8 responses to “Breastfeeding in the U.S. (Part 1): A personal history

  1. My MIL nursed the first 6 of her 7 babies on a strict 4-hour schedule, because that’s what the doctors and nurses told her to do. She only lasted 3-4 months with each of them because they were, in her words, “starving.” My husband is the oldest and was born in 1974. #6 was born 10 years later in 1984, and this advice was still given out (they live in southern Alberta). When she had #7 in 1993, the advice had changed to nursing on demand. Her last baby wanted to nurse every 2 hours, so that’s what she did. Surprise! He thrived on breastfeeding. She wishes someone had told her that it was okay to nurse the baby when it was hungry, not by the clock.

    What amazes me is how late this bad advice was being given out!

    My mom nursed all 5 of us kids. My younger sister (#3) was always super skinny and near the bottom of the CDC growth charts. Not FTT, just small. She was told to switch over to formula around 3-4 months, so she did. Guess what? Her baby still stayed small and fairly skinny; it was just her genes. She’s mad that she wasn’t given more information about the CDC charts (that they’re not based on exclusively breastfed babies, that EBF babies tend to be smaller at first, etc) because she would have kept nursing my sister instead of switching to formula.


  2. Interesting to get a more personal/historical perspective. As a nurse, I often worked with other nurses who had their own agenda when it came to “helping” new mom’s nurse. It sounds much like what your mom went through. I am lucky enough to currently work in an environment where all of our clients start off breastfeeding and we encourage them as much as they need every step of the way.


  3. Mark,

    I just love your blog. Thanks for highlighting breastfeeding this week! Sharing your insights with my FB followers.


  4. I think one of the saddest things about this epidemic of formula feeding from the 1950’s-1980’s (aside from all the babies and moms who missed out on the health benefits of breastfeeding) is the fact that the baby girls who were born during that time grew up to have babies of their own. And these new generations have to try to breastfeed without the full support and experience of their own mothers and mother-in-laws. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a brand new mom say, with tears, “My mother-in-law just keeps telling me to give her a bottle,” or “My mom can’t help me because she never breastfed herself.” The actions of those doctors, nurses, formula companies, and everyone else during those years of 1950-1980’s have had a continuous ripple effect from generation to generation.


    • I agree. There is a big cultural component to breastfeeding as women of one generation pass their accumulated knowledge on to the next. When that cycle is broken, as it was in the formula era, it’s hard to get it back. The same goes for vaginal birth. As fewer women have them, there is a loss of continuity from one generation to the next.

      It reminds me in a small way of a rather embarrassing exchange I once had with my former-farmer father–there I was in my early 20s, a city boy with no gardening experience, talking with puzzlement about how my melon vines were dying off in the fall, no matter what I did to keep them going. Dad, who had unsuccessfully tried to get me interested in farm stuff as a child, looked at me with pity: “Melons are annuals, Mark. They’re supposed to die off.”


      It only took one generation to lose that basic connection to how things grow (and only about five minutes to get it back…).Obviously, regaining the lost breastfeeding connection takes a lot more time and effort.


      • After I had my first child (with an amazing team of midwives) my grandmother who had been present for the labor and birth sat quietly (which was unlike her) in the corner. She came back the next day and we were talking about the birth and she said, “I didn’t know it happened like that.”

        “What?” I asked.

        “Just the way the whole thing [birth] happened. It was amazing.”

        “But Grandma, you had 8 kids.”

        “I know, but I was put out. I don’t remember any of it. And they gave me a shot to dry up my milk. Breastfeeding wasn’t even an option.”


        And though I’ve spent years reading and talking about this phenomenon, it struck me so deeply to be sitting in the room with my grandmother, who had birthed eight children, but who couldn’t give one memory or piece of advice towards what I was experiencing as a new mother.

        It just blows my mind.


  5. Great Blog! My parents were being born and growing up at the same time in the same place! (Keota and Washington to be exact) My father was born in 1950 and my mother in 54. I know neither one of my grandmothers’ breastfed but luckily my mother breastfed 2 of her three children so I always knew I would. Now, I’m breastfeeding my third at 27 months. Something I never imagined doing but feel completely natural at none the less. It completely baffles me at how birth and breastfeeding were taken over by the medical society and almost obliterated to where babies only were born on a schedule, fed from a can on a schedule and grew on a chart. I will be sharing this on my page .


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