Breastfeeding in the USA: A Brief History

Breastfeeding in the USA: A Brief History

Aug 06 , 2020


Megan McDonough

This month kicked off World Breastfeeding Week 2020, and we couldn’t be more excited. If you missed it, we partnered up with EmmaWell for their LOL (“Latch on Live”) event that featured three all-star lactation consultants (IBCLCs) and baby feeding experts. We also gave away 2 of our Lilu Massage Bras! 

In an effort to shed light on breastfeeding in the USA, we’re taking a good hard look at the history of breastfeeding in our country. Let’s take a walk down memory lane. 

The first Industrial Revolution

There were two phases of the Industrial Revolution, with the first spanning from the late 1790s through the 1830s. Women worked in factories away from their children, and therefore had less time to be at home and breastfeed on a regular schedule, if at all. 

Middle-class women, while not necessarily factory workers, were away from the home just as much. Many joined and participated in social organizations, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. 

With so many hours spent at the factories or elsewhere, moms were encouraged to keep a strict schedule around breastfeeding, so that their newborns would receive as much milk as a mother’s busy schedule allowed. Yet, we now know that a baby’s sucking is what stimulates milk production and if a baby is put on a strict feeding schedule, a mothers’ milk supply actually goes down. 

The late 1800s

Millions of immigrants made their way to America in the 1800s for dreams of a new life. Many of these people left their extended families behind, some of whom would otherwise be around to help care for and raise a child. This meant that on top of settling into a new life in a new and unfamiliar place, mothers had less help than they were perhaps used to back in their home countries. 

During this time, many doctors believed that breastmilk was essential, and were even known to criticize breastfeeding mothers who were not regularly exercising, eating well and sleeping for enough hours. Their reasoning, as it still is today, is that with a healthy and balanced lifestyle, a mom’s breast milk will be at its most healthful for the baby. 

By the late 1800s, babies were fed all sorts of food that wasn’t breastmilk, but because there was a lack of knowledge and understanding around formula, many babies became ill and died. There was a scurry to find a better solution; researchers looked toward science for answers and in 1856, the first canned milk business opened. 

There was a common trend among many mothers during this time, of not being able to breastfeed more than a few weeks or months. There are a few reasons why this might be the case. We’d say that stress was a big factor. Stress has been shown to inhibit the ability for a mother to release oxytocin, which is so important for mother/child bonding, as well as the production of breast milk. 


Around the 1920s, wet nursing was a visible occupation in the United States. In hospitals, there were wings for wet nurses, many of whom were mostly poor and impoverished women. People would find a wet nurse for their families through ads in newspapers, doctors’ papers and as we’d assume, word of mouth. 

There’s a dark history around these wet nurses. Since many of these single women were impoverished and desperate, they’d leave their families or the father of their own children, and seek work as a wet nurse for a private, wealthier family. 

These families would rarely allow their wet nurses to bring their own baby with them, and due to that, that baby would be cast off to a foundling home. In short, it meant that while a wealthy baby got to thrive thanks to the care of a wet nurse, the wet nurse’s baby would die. 


In the early 1970s, breastfeeding hit a super low point in our country’s history. By this time, formulas based on evaporated milk became readily available to moms. The fact that the American Medical Association had given the seal of approval to these products paired with physicians believing formula milk to be safer and more effective than breast milk. 

Howardisms notes that while there has been a resurgence in breastfeeding in the last 30 years, breastfeeding rates that were over 90% at the start of the 20th century are just over 40% today.


After a bit of a bumpy ride, breastfeeding in public is now legal in all 50 U.S. states and in the District of Columbia. 

That said, even today, there’s a lot of struggle (and even stigma, although its lessening) around women breastfeeding and pumping in public. Historically, those most likely to breastfeed are privileged women (i.e. wealthy, college educated, or who have access to a private workspace). If you haven’t brushed up on these 7 startling stats about WOC and pregnancy, please do. 

Since so many women today work, and work long hours, it’s become a privilege to be able to take time off throughout the day to pump. Another fact to consider is that compared to other wealthy countries around the world, where mothers are accommodated with several months-worth of paid maternity leave, the U.S. is far behind. 

We’re finding that moms today are seeking advice from other moms their own age, rather than their own mothers or grandmothers. Why? Well, each generation had a specific situation. For example, moms of the previous generation used formula, so they didn’t need to worry about finding a place to breastfeed or pump every couple of hours. Then, the generation before that, many women didn’t work the hours that women today do, so they were able to feed mostly in the comfort of their own homes. 

Our contribution

The CDC, UNICEF and World Health Organization recommend that moms feed their babies breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. However limited maternity leave in the US makes that breastfeeding goal difficult for moms to achieve unless they rely on the antiquated technology of breast pumps. Breast pumping is exhausting, time-consuming, and stressful. Seriously. Just type "breast pumping is " into a search bar and look at the predictions.

Breast pumps aren't as efficient as a baby nursing, so 2/3 of moms rely on breast massage while pumping to produce enough milk to feed their babies. In fact, research from Stanford shows that performing massage while breastfeeding can result in 50% more milk per session. But massage makes pumping even more exhausting and time-consuming.

So we decided to build a product that makes breast pumping more efficient to help more moms reach their breastfeeding goals.

Lilu is all about empowering moms, especially working moms with limited bandwidth, and our goal is to help you achieve that work life balance we all crave. Our technology is designed for real users and backed by science, so that postnatal care is comfortable and compatible with all of life’s successes. Because moms deserve more.

Lilu is a Women’s Health company building tech-enabled devices to empower new moms. Our first product, the Lilu Massage Bra, mimics compression massage, so you can empty your breasts fully to establish, increase and maintain your milk supply. Pump up to 50% more milk each session, all while going hands-free.
Lilu Massage Bra with flanges

Lilu Massage Bra

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