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Semin Perinatol. 1994 Dec;18(6):532-6.

Two thousand years of medical advice on breastfeeding: comparison of Chinese and western texts.

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  • 1Department of Pediatrics, University of Chicago, Wyler Children's Hospital, IL 60637.

Abstract

This discussion introduces only a few aspects of the historical writings on breastfeeding in the two cultures. Chinese writings seem to be closer in orientation to modern worldwide medical advice, approaching breastfeeding from a more natural and supportive perspective. Ancient and not-so-ancient western medical advice on breastfeeding often implies the inadequacy of the mother to breastfeed her own infant, especially in the early weeks of life. One can only speculate as to what the historical basis for this may be. European medicine emphasizes the testing of milk for its adequacy. Again, the scientific basis for this is not evident. Modern clinical science finds that the milk of virtually all mothers, even those suffering from significant malnutrition, is adequate for the growth and development of the infant. This focus on the "testing" of milk may represent an early example of the reliance on laboratory diagnosis that has so heavily dominated western medicine in recent years. Finally, western medicine seems more managerial with regard to breastfeeding than Chinese medicine, and has perhaps "medicalized" breastfeeding, a compliant often voiced even now in late 20th century America. Nonetheless, both literatures demonstrate that throughout the history of recorded medicine, physicians have been concerned with promoting optimal breastfeeding and have understood the importance of human milk for the survival, growth, and development of the infant.

PIP:

Chinese and Western pediatric scholarship is compared based on published textbook material over the past 2000 years. Modern, late 20th century teachings on breastfeeding are organized around the concept that breastfeeding is a natural, biological behavior that should be initiated immediately after birth and the belief that human milk is almost always the perfect food for the infant, even when the mother is less than adequately nourished or is suffering from some disease. In contrast, ancient and not so ancient Western medical advice on breastfeeding often implies the inadequacy of the mother to breastfeed her own infant, especially in the early weeks of life. This concept continues unquestioned through 1700 years of European medical advice on breastfeeding. One the other hand, William Cadogan's advice in 1750 is remarkably similar to that of the 12th century Chinese physician: absence of medical intervention and a natural and rapid onset of nursing by the biological mother. Chinese writings seem to be closer in orientation to modern worldwide medical advice, approaching breastfeeding from a more natural and supportive perspective. The ancient Chinese medical texts, but not the early European texts, address the origins of human milk. A Chinese work by Sun Simiao (581 to 682) of the Tang Dynasty describes human milk as the product of vital energies. On the initiation of breastfeeding, a 12th century Chinese writing sounds remarkably similar to the advice one would give today to a mother who had just delivered a child. However, Chinese physicians are not without their concepts of bad milk. They describe types of milk that they associate with the induction of various diseases in nurslings. Finally, Western medicine seems more managerial with regard to breastfeeding than Chinese medicine, and has perhaps medicalized breastfeeding. Throughout the 2000 years, both literatures express concern that substitutes for human milk are being used too early and too often.

PMID:
7701356
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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