Feeding the Young: The History of Baby Formula

Posted by Abhay Srivastava on

When parents face obstacles regarding keeping their baby full and happy, they turn to one of the most helpful tools: baby formula. Baby formula feeds millions, if not billions, of babies through their early years, allowing them to fully develop into active members of society. In situations where a parent can’t breastfeed or when a baby shows signs of breastmilk sensitivity, baby formula has been there to provide the nutrients babies need.

So, when did baby formula come to be, and how did it become one of the most reliable tools for feeding babies on a global scale? First, let’s go over the brief history of baby formula and how it revolutionized the way we feed our infants. From the early beginnings of wet nurses to modern-day formulations, you’ll develop an appreciation for the amount of work it took to make baby formula what it is today.

The Beginning: Wet Nursing

Before society had access to “modern” medicine, breastfeeding was the most common method of feeding infants, similar to today. However, if mothers couldn’t produce breastmilk or chose not to nurse, a “wet nurse” would step in to feed the child. It was a common practice for families in 18th-century Europe and America to hire these caretakers.

Families would either send their child to the home of a wet nurse or have the wet nurse reside in their home until weaning. Because wet nurses had to provide the best quality breastmilk possible, they had the utmost care. Families also believed the milk quality determined the child’s future “disposition.” As a result, governments regulated bureaus to have nurses undergo strict routine health examinations and prohibited them from nursing more than one child at a time.

The Switch To Animal Milk

Over time, relying on a wet nurse fell out of favor, and families needed to find different alternatives to breast milk. As such, the practice of feeding babies milk derived from animals—also called dry nursing—rose in popularity in the 19th century. Animals, including cows, mares, goats, and donkeys, were optimal for seeking milk alternatives. Cow’s milk eventually became a premier source due to its availability.

There were arguments about how one should prepare the milk; some suggested fresh milk from the animal, while others recommended warming or boiling the milk before serving. Before the inception of a baby bottle, spoon-feeding milk or the use of a cow’s horn filled with chamois at the end to act as a nipple were commonplace. Baby bottles came about during the Industrial Revolution, some having submarine shapes and consisting of ceramic, glass, or metal materials.

Finding a Breast Milk Substitute

Many scientists and physicians aimed to make an adequate breast milk substitute. In the 19th century, observers noticed that cow’s milk had a high mortality rate, as many babies were prone to indigestion and dehydration. In 1838, German scientist Johann Franz Simon published the first chemical analysis of human and cow’s milk, which laid the foundation for the basis of formula nutrition science for future decades.

Johann Franz Simon noticed a higher amount of protein and lower carbohydrate count in cow’s milk than in human milk. He also believed that the large cow’s milk curds resulted in the “indigestibility of cow’s milk.” This discovery eventually led to the creation of commercial baby and powdered formula, along with Nestle creating the first complete artificial formula for America.

Physicians Step In

In the late 19th century, many physicians believed that commercial formulas weren’t suitable for children due to nutritional inadequacy. Furthermore, they thought infant nutrition should come directly from physicians rather than formula manufacturers. As a result, Harvard Medical School’s Thomas Morgan Rotch introduced the “percentage method” that became popular from 1890 to 1915.

Cow’s milk formulas were prescribed using the percentage method, compounded by a milk laboratory, or through a home method. Physicians monitored a baby’s growth and examined their stool, modifying the formula based on their findings. By 1920, physicians became frustrated by the formula’s complexity and modifications associated with Rotch’s method.

Healthier, Pasteurized Milk

Between the late 19th century and 21st century, physicians understood that diseases occurred from bacteria transmitted by the consumption of contaminated foodstuffs. Because refrigerators weren’t accessible until 1910, raw milk spoiled quickly and was found to transmit diseases, including tuberculosis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and cholera. There was a discovery that pasteurization protected milk against milk-borne diseases.

Many physicians opposed pasteurization due to their belief that it diminished the milk’s nutritional value. So, parents opted to add orange juice and cod liver oil for vitamins C, D, A, and D to their children’s milk to prevent rickets and scurvy. By 1915, pasteurized milk became a universal practice.

The Entry of Evaporated Milk

John B. Myenburg introduced the method of producing unsweetened evaporated milk in 1883. It involved evaporating 60% of the water from milk in a sealed metal still, then sterilizing the condensed milk by heating it to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. This method resulted in a homogenized, smaller curd, making it more digestible than pasteurized milk.

Encouragement and evidence supported the low-cost availability of evaporated milk. By the 1930s, physicians learned to mix evaporated milk formula with two ounces of cow’s milk, 1/8 ounces of sugar, and enough water to provide infants with three ounces of fluid per pound per day. By the 1940s through the 60s, most babies not consuming breast milk received evaporated milk formula, vitamins, and iron supplements.

Seeking “Humanized” Formulas

The early 20th century brought about the shift of infant formula from protein content to carbohydrates and fat content that more closely resembled human milk. Some researchers suggested that cow’s milk carbohydrates should supplement dextrin and maltose. E. Mead Johnson, the founder of the Mead Johnson company, introduced the additive Dextri-Maltose.

In 1919, new infant formulas replaced milk fat with fat from vegetables and animals called SMA, or synthetic milk adaptation. It was the first formula to contain cod liver oil. Over time, other brands created “humanized” formulas with vegetable-oil-fat blends called Lactogen. Later on, the Mead Johnson company created Sobee, the first soy-based formula. Later, they created Pablum, the first pre-cooked fortified infant cereal containing wheat, corn, wheat germ, bone meal, alfalfa, and dried brewer’s yeast.

The Modern-Day Formulations

As the history of baby formula catches up with modern times, the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition determined the necessary vitamin and mineral levels for infant formulas. The committee endorsed iron fortification, which dropped iron deficiency anemia considerably in infants. Another admirable addition to baby formula was the creation of specialty formulas for premature and low-birthweight infants.

At Formuland, we offer European-based baby formula that contains organic, non-GMO ingredients to keep your baby satiated. We also provide specialty formulations for infants with allergies, lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, colic, acid reflux, and more. We recommend our goat milk infant formula, as it more closely resembles breast milk and provides the necessary nutrients for easy digestion. If you would like to know more about our baby formula products, we at Formuland will happily assist you.

Feeding the Young: The History of Baby Formula

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