Teething problems?

How and what we feed our children depends on a whole lot of different factors. It follows fashions, medical knowledge of the time and depends on the availability of different foods. We can learn a lot about childhood diet just by looking at or analysing teeth. In this blog post we look at the archaeological and historical evidence for what children were being fed in colonial New Zealand.

Bioarchaeologists like ourselves are generally very interested in what infants and children are being fed in the societies we study. What you’re fed as a child, especially when/how you’re weaned can have big impacts on your health as an adult. Put really simply: healthy kids = healthy society. So we can look at what was happening for the children in our colonial settlements as a measure of how well the colonists were doing in general.

So how do we look at what children were eating? Well, first up we can look at old newspapers, magazines and books to see what people were being told to feed their infants. These recipes vary wildly in how healthy they would have been for babies – some were just broths made of wheat/ barley flour or bread (these were called paps or panadas). Unfortunately many of these had little to no nutritional value – however advertising often convinced mothers that these foods were better than breastmilk (they weren’t).

Just a few examples of weaning food advice around for our colonial settlers.
Top Left: Advice from the Ladies Column of the Otago Witness (28 Sept 1878, accessed via Papers Past). Bottom Left: Mothers and infants, nurses and nursing : translation from the French of a treatise on nursing, weaning, and the general treatment of young children. Public Domain Mark (accessed via the Wellcome Collection) Right: Advert from the New Zealand Herald (8 Nov 1881, accessed via Papers Past)

But that only takes us so far. People don’t always follow advice from newspapers, and we know that in England at this time how you fed your children depended a lot on where you were in society. Rich, fashionable women were advised to wean early or leave breastfeeding to wetnurses during the mid 1800s, so that they could return to society and focus on having more children. Poorer women living in towns often had to work in factories to make a living, and so had to wean their children early so that they could return to work. Rural mothers, on the other hand might wean quite late so that they could stave off having more children and more mouths to feed!

To get a more detailed idea of what New Zealand colonial mothers were doing, we can look at archaeological evidence alongside these historical records. In our work we’ve been looking at teeth for signs of stress and/or poor diet. We can look at things like cavities to see whether children were eating especially sugary or starchy foods. We can look at tooth wear to see how tough their diet was, we can even see stress episodes by looking for uneven laying down of enamel in the teeth (these are called linear enamel hypoplasias, and look like raised lines and furrows on the tooth’s surface).

In the children of St. John’s Milton we see an unusual number of cavities in young children. This is not necessarily unexpected, the Victorian period was a time of unbridled sugar consumption – with the British Empire providing sugar galore, even for its distant colonies like New Zealand. If you look at the weaning recipes above, you can see that adding sugar lumps to the milk/water you were feeding to babies was positively recommended. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that even the baby teeth of Milton children were riddled with cavities!

Sugar wasn’t the only less-than-ideal thing that children were eating during the colonial period – some newspapers advised adding whisky to water to quench infants’ thirst. Opium (or its medicinal cousin laudanum) was also used either intentionally to quiet children, or unintentionally transferred to infants through breastmilk as mothers used it to get to sleep. Worse still were the patent medicines that claimed to safely calm and soothe infants, but contained dangerous mixtures of alcohol and morphine derivatives!

Evidence of various inappropriate substances used to soothe and quiet children.
Left: The dangers of dosing children with opium (Lyttleton Times, 13 September 1866). Top Right: Advice to quench thirst by adding whiskey to water (New Zealand Herald, 14 September 1878). Bottom Right: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was a classic patent medicine involving large quantities of alcohol and morphine sulphates (from the Lake Country Press, 16 January 1879). All articles accessed via Papers Past.

Even when an infant was being fed safe and healthy food they might still be exposed to health risks through their feeding bottles! Some bottles were notoriously difficult to clean, and advice at the time didn’t recommend removing and separately cleaning parts like the rubber feeding nipple more than once every two weeks (Thanks, Mrs. Beeton!). This lead to the build up and incubation of bacteria in the bottle causing a massive increase in infant infections. So dangerous were some makes of bottle that they were nicknamed murder feeders!

Example of a murder feeder, known as such because of difficulty cleaning apparatus and infant deaths that resulted from this. Made by William Mather, creator of, among other things, non-removable fabric ink and fly papers. C. 1870s-1880s. [Artefact from vacant section rubbish layer, Christchurch]. Image and caption courtesy of Jessie Garland (The City Remains).

We can also look at chemical signals in the skeleton (like we talked about in some of our earlier blog posts) to tell when children were weaned and what foods they were weaned onto. This is a little bit complicated, but put basically: when an infant is breastfeeding they are essentially eating their mother’s protein, and when they get weaned they stop eating their mother’s protein and start looking chemically more like adults in the population.

We can measure how their chemistry changes during childhood by looking at different points in a single tooth, or strand of hair, and narrow down what children were being fed and when they were being weaned.

This graph shows how the body’s chemistry changes as a child is weaned. When I look at the results of my analysis I’m looking to see if there’s a weaning curve like this, and when weaning starts and ends.

In Milton we have quite an interesting pattern emerging from this analysis. It seems as though adults living in Milton, who all came from different UK and European places, had very different weaning patterns. Some were weaned very early (before 9 months), and others were weaned much later (around 2 years). But all our Milton children seem to have been weaned around the same age (starting supplementation about 6 months of age and weaned between 18months and 2 years). There might have been a lot of conflicting advice out there, but the women of Milton all seem to have made similar decisions about when to stop breastfeeding! And actually their weaning practices were pretty healthy. At 6 months children really do need to start weaning to get enough nutrients for their growing bodies, and extended weaning is generally agreed to be a good thing for the health of children.

Charlotte King, 1st May 2020


For more on weaning through the ages, have a look at Valerie Fildes’ excellent work including:

Fildes V. 1995. The culture and biology of breastfeeding: An historical review of Western Europe. In: Stuart-Macadam P, Dettwyler KA, editors. Breastfeeding Biocultural Perspectives. Aldine De. New York: Aldine De Gruyter; p. 101–44.

Fildes V. 1986. Breasts, Bottles and Babies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

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