In this day and age, exclusively feeding newborns with infant formula is often discouraged, as echoed in the World Health Organisation’s breastfeeding guidelines. This is besides the countless studies conducted that render it somewhat harmful.

Read on to find out how one man’s drive to solve a healthcare issue of his time triggered a modern-day health debate.

Maternal deaths led to a desperate search for alternatives


In ancient times, the number of maternal deaths during childbirth went sky-high – about 1 in 100 childbirths – due to poor hygiene practices, insufficient birthing knowledge and inefficient medical equipment. Not only that, some mothers faced the difficulty of producing milk – ultimately, forced to figure out other means to feed their babies.

The use of a “wet nurse” – a woman who breastfeeds another’s child – has been a common practice since as early as 2000 BC. It was viewed as a well-organised profession with contracts and laws designed to regulate its practice. However, objections surfaced during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Wet nursing was condemned due to a belief that the child would inherit physical and psychological characteristics of the wet nurse. The practice continued until the feeding bottle became popular in the 19th century. With a feasible alternative feeding method available, wet nursing as a profession quickly declined to extinction.

The feeding bottle itself has undergone modifications from the 16th century up till the 19th century. The initial bottles, pap boats and teats were often difficult to clean. Consequently, the bacteria build-up rendered feeding devices detrimental to the infant's health. Up till the early 19th century, animal milk was considered the best alternative to human milk and wet nurses. During this time, the use of dirty feeding devices, combined with the lack of proper milk storage and sterilisation caused fatalities in one third of all artificially fed infants during their first year of life.

Justus von Liebig aspired to curb hunger and used his knowledge to create infant formula which resembled breast milk. Photo credit: BLTC
Justus von Liebig aspired to curb hunger and used his knowledge to create infant formula which resembled breast milk. Photo credit: BLTC

Even though animal milk was the best option, it still lacked nutritional value. This sent many scientists to the laboratories in hopes of formulating artificial milk that resembled human milk. German-born Justus von Liebig – a chemist and visionary – was always driven by the desire to help prevent hunger. He pioneered some of the earliest fertiliser studies, researched on nutritional science and invented beef extract. In 1865, Liebig developed the first commercial infant formula to meet the health needs of the society.

Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies – a credible alternative


Marketed as Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies, Liebig created a formula – first in a liquid form, and then in a powdered form for better preservation – comprised of cow’s milk, wheat flour, malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. It was the first commercial substitute for human breast milk to be developed from thorough scientific study – and was regarded as the perfect infant food.

His formula hit the market at a critical time whereby, before formula milk, only two in three babies who were not breastfed lived to see their first birthday. During initial sales, it was highly priced and could only be afforded by the affluent societies. His invention still sent many scouring the shelves in search of the product that could be the answer to their woes.

Launched in 1865, Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies was a powder consisting of cow’s milk, wheat flour, malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. Photo credit: Alamy/BBC
Launched in 1865, Liebig's Soluble Food for Babies was a powder consisting of cow’s milk, wheat flour, malt flour and potassium bicarbonate. Photo credit: Alamy/BBC

Liebig’s creation set the pace for other commercial products and formulas to be rapidly produced. A total of 27 patented brands of infant food were in the market by 1883. Indeed, the foods were fattening – but they lacked valuable nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals.

Around the time Liebig’s invention surfaced, the public also witnessed the refinement of sterilisation techniques for food in sealed containers. Thus, infant death rates were lowered as a whole. Between 1890 and 1910, regulators placed large emphasis on cleanliness and the improvement in the quality of milk supplies. Some of the improvements made included forming infant milk clinics to distribute clean milk to the public and taking better care of dairy cattle.

The role of bottle-feeding in modern medicine


Despite studies and research portraying negative outcomes of infant formula, it is still widely used. This is due to several factors; e.g. making it easier for working women to manage, low production of breast milk for some mothers, and even the abundant choices available in the market that advertise these “highly nutritional” formulas.

Healthcare today has come a long way since Liebig’s time and healthcare professionals are more aware of the pros and cons to both breastfeeding and bottle-feeding. MIMS

Read more:
The man who revolutionised birth safety in US hospitals
The woman who prevented an epidemic of birth defects in the US
The boardwalk sideshow that saved the lives of premature babies

Sources:
http://www.bbc.com/news/business-40281403
https://www.general-anaesthesia.com/people/justusvonliebig.html
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684040/
https://www.romper.com/p/where-does-infant-formula-come-from-a-brief-history-of-the-breast-versus-bottle-debate-25022