The history of formula

by BabyYumYum
Baby Yum Yum - Formula
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Whether because of personal choice or necessity, there are many reasons a mother may choose to formula-feed her baby – but have you ever thought about how it started getting made in the first place?

For centuries, parents have needed access to alternatives to breastfeeding, often in cases where the mother could not produce breast milk or where the mother had died during childbirth. In these cases, babies often starved if there was no access to a wet nurse – a woman who breastfeeds another woman’s child.

Parents, desperate to feed their babies, would mix up concoctions using everything from wheat to honey, evaporated milk to various animal products – but often these were not nutritionally sound. This led to a high infant mortality rate and babies suffering from rickets, malnutrition and other ailments.

“A significant step in the development of modern formula milk was the development of non-milk-based formulas for babies who are allergic to cow’s milk.”

The first formulas

In the 1860’s, the first infant formula was produced by German scientist Justus von Liebig – first in liquid form and later in powdered form, using cow’s milk, wheat, potassium bicarbonate and malt. It was prohibitively expensive for most people, but its success meant that other companies soon jumped on the bandwagon and began to produce similar products, including Nestle’s Milk.

Within 20 years, many companies had developed and marketed infant formulas, with some 27 patented brands of infant food on the market. The problem was that most spoiled quickly and many didn’t contain the nutrients required by babies for optimal growth and development. Towards the end of 19th century, more sanitary production processes were developed and offerings such as condensed milk (cow’s milk that has had the water removed, not the tins of sweet stuff we South Africans know it as!) were developed and this led to further the popularity of bottle feeding.

The feeding bottle

Historically, parents without a wet nurse also used devices made from wood, clay, ceramics and a cow’s horn to feed their babies. These were difficult to clean and often led to infections as bacteria built up in these rudimentary bottles. In the Victorian era, there was a bottle invented that has now become known as the “Murder Bottle”. While mothers during this time thought they were feeding their infants in the best way possible, they were unknowingly causing their infants’ deaths.

Murder bottle

The murder bottle was appealing to mothers as it allowed the infant to feed themselves, with little help from the mother. However, these bottles were very difficult to clean and became incubators for deadly bacteria to grow. Infants would then drink from these bottles and become ill and sometimes die from an infection.

The basic baby bottle as we know it today was introduced in the 19th century. Bottles were made from glass and teats evolved from cork nipples (with ‘ivory pins at air inlets to ensure regular flow’) in 1850’s France to the first rubber nipple, which was introduced in India around the same time.

By the beginning of the 20th century, rubber nipples had been refined and were widely used. The development of this modern feeding bottle was a crucial factor in the increasing popularity of artificial feeding at this time.

The formulation of modern formula milk

During the first half of the 20th century, with the new scientific understanding of the necessity of vitamins and micronutrients in human diets, the nutritional content of formula vastly improved.

Formula was also becoming increasingly affordable and safe due to improved production processes, making it an easier choice for parents. Alfred Bosworth created Similac (standing for ‘similar to lactation’) and several other formulas were then released over the next few decades. And with rising incomes and standards of living in the Western world, more and more homes were serviced by clean, chlorinated water and could also afford refrigerators for safe and hygienic storage.

A significant step in the development of modern formula milk was the development of non-milk-based formulas for babies who are allergic to cow’s milk. In 1929, parents were able to purchase the first soy formula.

Later, this formula was fortified with vitamins to make it more nutritious. Similac was reformulated in 1951, making it more concentrated, and Mead Johnson released Enfamil (‘infant meal’) in 1959. In the early 1960’s, commercial formulas became the common choice among parents and practitioners in the United States and by the 1970’s, evaporated milk formulas were hardly used.

Controversy and contention

At this time, inexpensive formula was made available to paediatricians and hospitals, and formula was aggressively marketed in developing countries. Many doctors recommended formula over breast milk for babies. The period between 1930 and 1970 saw a steady decline in breastfeeding in favour of a corresponding rise in formula feeding.

However, during the 1970s, a pro-breastfeeding movement began, with organisations like the La Leche League creating public awareness around the health benefits of breast milk. UNICEF and the World Health Organisation also began working towards instituting regulations in formula advertising and by 1979, the International Baby Food Network was formed, which advocated for the ethical marketing of breastfeeding alternatives around the world.

A medical miracle

Ultimately, breast milk is the medically preferred method to feed babies. But when looking at how far we have come in the development of infant formulas, we also cannot deny that modern formula has saved the lives of many babies who cannot be breastfed, for whatever reason. Whichever method you choose to feed your baby, by bottle or breast, we should be pleased to be living in modern times, where formula has become a lot safer and more nutritious, giving our babies what they need in order to grow up into strong and healthy adults.

We also came across this wonderful “Guide to bottle feeding” leaflet with information from UNICEF that gives information on:

  • How to make up a feed
  • Feeding your baby
  • How often should I feed my baby
  • How will I know if my baby is hungry?
  • How do I know if my baby is getting enough infant formula?

Disclaimer: This post is based on personal experience and personal brand preference of the content author and has in no way been paid for or sponsored. BabyYumYum reserves the right to its opinions and fully supports the notion of promotion that breast is best in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) infant feeding guidelines. Breast milk is the best food for infants. Good maternal nutrition is essential to prepare and maintain breastfeeding. If breastfeeding is not applied, an infant formula may be used according to the advice of healthcare professionals. Preparation and storage of any infant formula should be performed as directed on the tin in order not to pose any health hazards.

At BabyYumYum, we wholeheartedly support the beautiful journey of breastfeeding. However, we also understand that life has a way of throwing unexpected surprises our way. Moms may need to return to work or face other circumstances that make exclusive breastfeeding challenging. That’s why we embrace formula feeding too. So whether you choose to breastfeed exclusively or opt for formula feeding, rest assured that at BabyYumYum, your choices are respected and supported with utmost care and understanding.

Related Articles