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|Wed, 09-03-2003 - 10:47am|
Wolds find proves medieval babies stayed healthy for longer on mother's milk
Saturday August 23, 2003
A study of infant bones from a deserted medieval village has given backing
to the ancient nursing nostrum that "breast is best".
Evidence from Wharram Percy in the Yorkshire Wolds, abandoned when almost
everyone was killed by the Black Death, shows that unweaned children were as
healthy as their modern counterparts.
Malnutrition, disease and other curses of peasant life in the 10th to 14th
centuries set in when children left the breast - which appears to have
happened later than is usually the case today.
Results from nitrogen isotopes in the bones show children were still taking
breast milk at 18 months, although by then their diet included food and
water, much of which was sub-standard or contaminated.
"Stunted growth really started after this point," said Simon Mays, a human
skeletal biologist with English Heritage, who has carried out the study with
archaeologists from Bradford and Oxford universities.
"Conditions thereafter were so poor that adults in Wharram Percy continuing
to grow until their late 20s, in order to make up for the slow start, as
opposed to the modern figure of about 18 years old."
The study, the latest contribution to a huge archive of discoveries from
Wharram Percy, which has been studied since Victorian times, backs up
theories that the medieval countryside was even more unhealthy than squalid,
Dr Mays said: "Growth rates of infants at Wharram Percy suggest conditions
even worse than those of slum dwelling Victorian workhouse children."
Breastfeeding was a rare but inevitably short-lived natural defence against
the general bleakness of life in the village, where only a church and dozens
of grassy hummocks remain.
Dr Mays said: "It promoted infant health because milk contains important
natural ingredients that strengthen the immune system. But in medieval times
it also enabled children to avoid contaminated food and water. This was a
major source of disease in villages like Wharram Percy."
The analysis used new techniques in analysing the isotopes, including a mass
spectrometer which weighed individual atoms. From the mass of scientific
data, a picture of "a terrible struggle for existence" emerged.
Dr Mays said: "While being breastfed, these infants grew as well as modern
babies, but when it stopped, the environment made its baleful impact.
Extended breastfeeding shielded children from the very high level of infant
mortality we might otherwise expect to see."
The findings also suggest that medical advice, which in medieval times
included belief in the Roman doctor Soranus's recommendation of extended
breast-feeding, was being followed at village level. Evidence confirms that
feeding and the use of wet-nurses was the norm.
Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust,
said:"Women in the medieval period had the advantage of living in a culture
that was particularly supportive of breastfeeding and where experienced
breastfeeders could offer help to the new mother. Sadly, that's very
different from now."