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The One Best Way?

Breastfeeding History, Politics, and Policy in Canada

Tasnim Nathoo

Publication Year: 2009

In recent years, breastfeeding has been prominently in the public eye in relation to debates on issues ranging from parental leave policies, work−family balance, public decency, the safety of our food supply, and public health concerns such as health care costs and the obesity “epidemic.”

Breastfeeding has officially been considered “the one best way” for feeding infants for the past 150 years of Canadian history. This book examines the history and evolution of breastfeeding policies and practices in Canada from the end of the nineteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first. The authors’ historical approach allows current debates to be situated within a broader social, political, cultural, and economic context.

Breastfeeding shifted from a private matter to a public concern at the end of the nineteenth century. Over the course of the next century, the “best” way to feed infants was often scientifically or politically determined, and guidelines for mothers shifted from one generation to the next. Drawing upon government reports, academic journals, archival sources, and interviews with policy-makers and breastfeeding advocates, the authors trace trends, patterns, ideologies, and policies of breastfeeding in Canada.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Studies in Childhood and Family in Canada


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix

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Authors' Note

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pp. x

Historically, practical knowledge and lore about breastfeeding generally has been carried across generations by women. During the writing of this book, we were fortunate to hear many, many stories of individuals' experiences with various aspects of breastfeeding. Family, friends, colleagues, and near strangers who innocently asked about our work privileged us with ...

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Introduction: The One Best Way?

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pp. xi-xvi

Dr. Helen MacMurchy wrote the above words in Canada's first piece of federal government-sponsored child-care advice literature for mothers. As the newly appointed head of the Division of Child Welfare, one of MacMurchy's central goals during her tenure was to establish breastfeeding as "the Canadian way"—in spite of the already dramatic decline ...

Part 1: Transitions, 1850-1920

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1. Infant Mortality, Social Reform, and Milk, 1850-1910

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pp. 2-19

Historical records of early breastfeeding practices in Canada are relatively scarce. However, through the use of infant mortality data, it is possible to explore, albeit indirectly, infant feeding practices in colonial and industrializing Canada. While it appears that, for Aboriginal groups and new settlers, exclusive breastfeeding for many months was typical, ...

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2. Theory and Formulas: Scientific Medicine and Breastfeeding, 1900-1920

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pp. 20-33

In the last half of the nineteenth century, physicians began to experiment with developing alternatives to breast milk, primarily for humanitarian reasons. The twentieth century marked the beginning of physicians' becoming increasingly aware of social problems and becoming actively involved in addressing them. Among these social problems was infant ...

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3. Nation, Race, and Motherhood: The Political Ideology of Breastfeeding, 1910-20

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pp. 34-50

Social and cultural transformations that had begun in the nineteenth century continued into the twentieth century. By the end of the second decade of the latter, awareness of, and initiatives to address, infant mortality had grown from local efforts to provincial and national efforts. For the next two decades, the intellectual and ideological roots of breastfeeding ...

Part 2: Decline, 1920-60

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4. Professionals and Government, 1920-30

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pp. 53-68

In the 1920s, the campaign against infant mortality moved from local and provincial activities to attempts at a more coordinated approach at the national level. The formation of the federal Department of Health in 1919 signalled the beginning of Canada's first policies on mothering and breastfeeding. Breastfeeding continued to be considered an important method of ...

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5. Marketing Infant Feeding, 1930-40

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pp. 69-88

In the 1930s, paediatric services provided by the state, particularly well baby clinics, continued to grow and expand. But these did not spread evenly or have an equal impact on women and children. In some cases, women had to be convinced to adopt new infant care practices. Women were also increasingly exposed to a burgeoning commercial infant feeding culture, ...

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6. Old-Fashioned, Time-Consuming, and a Little Disgusting, 1940-60

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pp. 89-104

By the 1940s, breastfeeding initiation and duration rates were rapidly declining. An article in Saturday Night, a widely circulated national magazine, commented, "The Canadian baby is fast becoming a parasite on the cow, and the female breast (to quote a Toronto paediatrician) fit only for hanging a sweater on" (Howes 1950, 46). Although several scientists ...

Part 3: Resurgence, 1960-2000

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7. The Return to Breastfeeding, 1960-80

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pp. 107-127

Throughout the early 1960s, breastfeeding initiation and duration rates remained relatively low, with less than one-quarter of mothers initiating breastfeeding. However, while breastfeeding continued to be abandoned by some groups of women, other groups were increasingly interested in choosing to breastfeed. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, ...

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8. Promoting Breastfeeding, 1980-90

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pp. 128-151

At the beginning of the 1980s, the federal government launched a national campaign to promote breastfeeding. This campaign brought together a range of activists, health professionals, and mothers, and it contributed to changing beliefs, values, and practices associated with breastfeeding. An article by Health and Welfare Canada official Tony Myres was ...

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9. Protecting, Promoting, and Supporting? 1990-2000

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pp. 152-182

In 1990, a journalist in the Vancouver Sun commented, "Breast is best." That's the well-worn adage spouted by nearly everyone who knows about feeding Baby. What could be better than Mother Nature's own elixir, custom made to nourish infants and packaged in portable and attractive containers? No one has anything bad to say about breastfeeding. But actions speak ...

Part 4: At Equilibrium: Into the Twenty-First Century

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10. Continuities and Change: Breastfeeding in Canada at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 185-197

Over the past 150 years, rates of breastfeeding have declined and increased dramatically. Breastfeeding initiation rates in Canada fell from near universal levels at the beginning of the twentieth century to less than 25 percent at mid-century and returned to just over 80 percent at the turn of the twenty-first century. Changes in breastfeeding practices have ...

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11. Using the Past to Look Forward: Breastfeeding Policy for the Twenty-First Century

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pp. 198-209

While the twenty-first century offers a new context for the development of breastfeeding policy, existing policy continues to be based on precedents and perspectives from earlier times. In this chapter we consider the lessons learned from our century-long description of breastfeeding and breastfeeding policy and offer guidance, based on an ...

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Conclusion: The Politics of "Choice"

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pp. 210-214

Breastfeeding has officially been considered "the one best way" for the past 100 years of Canadian history. The "best" way has often been scientifically or politically determined and has shifted from one generation to the next. Women have been encouraged to breastfeed because it was their maternal duty, because it was their patriotic duty, because it was good ...


Appendix A: Timeline of Infant Feeding in Canada

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pp. 215-216

Appendix B: Infant Mortality in Canada

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pp. 217

Appendix C: The Canadian Mother's Book

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pp. 217

Appendix D: Percentage of Births Occurring in Hospital, 1926-74

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pp. 218

Appendix E: National Surveys of Breastfeeding Practices

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pp. 219-221

Appendix F: Evolution of Canadian Infant Feeding Guidelines, 1923-2004

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pp. 222-231


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pp. 232-233


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pp. 234-252


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pp. 253-262

E-ISBN-13: 9781554581719
Print-ISBN-13: 9781554581474
Print-ISBN-10: 1554581478

Page Count: 282
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Studies in Childhood and Family in Canada