The Web Childhood Museum

History of Infant Feeding

There has always been a need for artificial feeding of course, either for when the mother had died or had no milk. A wet nurse was the preferred method of feeding for an infant in these circumstances, a respected and even an honoured profession in ancient times, though only used when really necessary. However throughout the 1500’s to the mid 1700’s (dubbed the dark ages of paediatrics) wet nursing became hugely popular and fashionable, anyone with money enough to pay, choose not to feed their own infant. Inevitably good wet nurses became hard to find and even those with skin or venereal diseases could find employment. Though wet nursing had declined sharply by the late 1700’s it did not go completely out of fashion until the early 1900’s.


































Ancient feeders are actually quite well documented as many are found in infant burials, whether they were placed there solely for the journey to the after life or are a testament to how difficult hand rearing was is unclear. They are made of earthenware or terracotta, usually semi-glazed and often highly decorated. One style frequently found in Roman infant burials were thought to be oil lamps but chemical analysis of the residue has proved to be ‘casein’ (a component of milk) and these are now believed to be feeding vessels.

Right. A horn and a small Roman oil lamp similar to those used for infant feeding.


Horns from small cows, goats, sheep or calves were also used from Egyptian times and were at their most popular in the middle ages: they did not go completely out of fashion in Europe until the late 1800’s.

Elizabethan feeding bottle, found in Old Swan Lane, London. Glazed in yellow.


Roman/British feeding bottle found in the Smithfield Market

area of London.





A snippet found during my research in an old medical journal that might amuse: Dr E Pritchard wrote that:- “Lactation (production of milk) is far more likely to go wrong in a woman than in a teetotal, vegetarian nerveless cow” he went on to advise that women should “Make themselves as much like a cow as possible if they wish to breast feed successfully”!! I make no further comment!


The information given in the following pages is to the best of my knowledge correct, though it is almost impossible to give precise dates. Many old and new styles and practices overlapped by several years for example, in 1907 no fewer than 4 types of bottle were advertised in one catalogue. Older styles were often affectionately referred to as ‘Old Fashioned’, advertising them as such indicates that this was not necessarily considered a bad thing.

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Copyright for text and photographs J. Oakes, strictly no reproduction without prior permission, please email.

There was a period in the early 1800’s when a few physicians decided that there was much to be said for direct suckling of infants on animals, such as goats and asses. (Both were preferred to cows milk.) Dr. Alphonse LeRoy of Paris stated that “There is in milk some invisible element, the element of life itself, a fugitive gas which is so volatile, that it escapes as soon as the milk is in contact with the air”. On his advice goats were kept in the grounds of hospitals and foundling homes. Dr. LeRoy held the view that it was simply impossible to hand rear infants on stored milk or even expressed breast milk since the ‘fugitive gas’ escaped so easily. It has to be said that he had some success with his methods; not because of his rather fanciful notions of fugitive gas of course, but because by putting the infant directly to the animal’s teat, the milk could not go off and had much less chance of becoming contaminated. 

Postcard in the collection, from Cuba showing that other countries also fed their infants directly from the animal.

Comic postcard from the collection, one wonders if the Victorians were ridiculing Dr LeRoy’s idea’s, there are several in the series.

Animals milk was not popular until the 1800’s mainly due to the belief that a child would become ‘animal like’ if fed on it. Moralists warned that “A child nourished on animals milk does not have perfect wits like those fed on woman’s milk, but always looks stupid, vacant and not right in the head”. It was also said to cause the watery grips, which of course it did, due to the filthy conditions in which it was collected, stored and transported. Despite these dire warnings there were times when there was no other alternative so ‘hand rearing’ had to be attempted and naturally a vessel had to be found, unfortunately many infants did not survive, the dangers of germs would not be fully understood until the discoveries of Louis Pasteur in the 1860’s.

Cyprus feeding bottle in the form of a mouse. c300 B.C. These 3 drawings are taken from my book:-

‘Baby Bottles & Infant Feeding Throughout The Ages’.