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In each species the nursing period bears a definite relationship to the time required for the animal to reach maturity. Animals that grow slowly and are longer in reaching maturity have a longer nursing period; while those that grow rapidly and reach maturity early have a short nursing period. Compare, for example, the nursing period of a few weeks for the puppy with that of nine months for the calf, and an even longer nursing period for the colt. The slowest growing animal of them all, the human, which takes longest to reach maturity and requires two years to develop sufficient teeth with which to chew solid foods, should have the longest nursing period of them all.
In the "Moral Precepts of Ancient Egypt," as recorded by Ptahhotep, a high official in the reign of Assa, a king of the IV Dynasty, about 3360 B. C., are these words: "When after thy months in the womb thou wast born . . . for three years her breasts were in thy mouth." In the Boulek Papyrus (1500 B. C.) the Egyptian sage, Kneusu-Hetep, in counseling his son, says: "Three long years she carried thee upon her shoulder and gave thee her breast to thy mouth, and as thy size increased her heart never once allowed her to say, 'why should I do this.'"
William J. Robinson, M. D., in Woman: Her Sex and Love Life, tells us that in Egypt and other Oriental countries "it is no rare sight to see a child of three or four years old interrupting his work or his play and running up to suckle his mother's breast."
Thus we see that during more than five thousand years of recorded Egyptian history, Egyptian mothers have continued to nurse their children for from three to four years or more.
So far as I can learn from my researches, the long nursing period, three to five years, is universal among those people who have not learned to substitute the mother with a cow or a goat. A few examples will suffice.
A patient of mine, a native of Macedonia, informs me that in his country mothers nurse their babies two or three years and even longer. A cousin of his was nursed for six full years. I may add that since I started my investigations I have met three American women who nursed their children for more than two years. A Hebrew patient, who was born and reared in Turkey, tells me that Turkish women nurse their children two years and longer. Dr. Kellogg points out that "pictures of young children standing at the breast of savage mothers are common." In France, Italy, Japan, and among the Slavs, the prolonged nursing period is the rule.
Westermark tells us (History of Human Marriage): "Very commonly, in a state of savage and barbarous life, the husband must not cohabit with his wife till the child is weaned. And this prohibition is all the more severe, as the suckling-time generally lasts for two, three, four years, or even more."
He mentions a number of such people and attributes the long suckling time, not to the natural needs of the child, which nature has provided for, in the same manner that she has provided for a supply of milk from the maternal breast, for as long as needed in the case of the lower animals, but "chiefly to the want of soft food and animal milk."
Westermark points out, however, that this is not always the case saying: "But when the milk can be obtained, and even when the people have domesticated animals able to supply them with it, this kind of food is often avoided." He gives, as an example, the Chinese who "entirely eschew the use of milk."
The Macedonian, previously referred to, assures me that, although his native people have and use goat's and sheep's milk, they never think of feeding it to an infant, providing the mother could nurse it, or of voluntarily cutting short the nursing period because these milks could be substituted for the mother's milk.
Dr. Robinson attributes the long nursing period among Orientals to the desire to prevent conception. This assumption has neither biological nor historical basis.
Before the coming of the white man to America there were no milk animals. (The deer and buffalo were here, but were not domesticated.) Indian mothers were forced to nurse their children because they had no milk from other sources to aid in weaning. They nursed them for two to three years. Among the Sioux Indians mothers were sometimes known to suckle two children at the same time. This same thing has been observed among the Guiana Indians of South America who as a rule nurse their children three to four years.
Catlin says: "It is a very rare occurrence tor an Indian woman to be blessed with more than four or five children during her life; and, generally speaking, they seem to be contented with two or three." Westermark tells us that "this statement is confirmed by the evidence of several other authorities; and it holds good not only for the North American Indians, but, upon the whole, for a great many uncivilized peoples."
Catlin also says, in combating the charge, made by some half-informed people, that there was an enormous infant mortality among the Indians, "Among the North American Indians, at all events, where two or three children are generally the utmost results of a marriage, such a rate of mortality could not exist without soon depopulating the country."
Replying to the charge made by some that the "slight degree of prolificness" observed among the North American Indians, and some other savage tribes, was due to "hard labor, or to unfavorable conditions of life in general," Westermark says: "That it is partly due to the long period of suckling is highly probable, not only because a woman less easily becomes pregnant during the time of lactation, but also on account of the continence in which she often has to live during that period."
Mr. John McIntosh tells us in his The Origin of the North American Indians (1844), page 118, that, "when a woman is with a child, she works at her ordinary occupations, convinced that work is advantageous for both herself and her child; her labour is easy, and she may be seen on the day after her delivery with her child at her back, avoiding none of her former employments. They suckle their child until they are at least two years of age."
I hold that the natural nursing period of the human infant ranges from three to five years, depending on whether it is born in the tropics or in the far north; its own mother's milk should constitute all or a large part of its diet until the child has reached a definite stage in its physical development. I believe, also, that the period during which child or animal should take milk bears a definite relation to the length of time required to complete its physical development.
Apes nurse their young from five to seven months. Their first teeth are complete by the third month. Young camels nurse for a year, although they begin to eat with their mothers a few weeks after they are born. A similar fact is seen with cow and horse.
"Primitive" people and animals nurse their young for some time after the complete eruption of the first set of teeth. Dr. Felix Oswald (Physical Education, page 29) declares that "the appearance of the eye-teeth (cuspids) and lesser molars mark the end of the second year as the period when healthy children may be gradually accustomed to semi-fluid vegetable substance. Till then, milk should form their only sustenance. But mothers whose employment does not interfere with their inclination in this respect may safely nurse their children for a much longer period."
In support of this he says: "The wives of the sturdy Argyll peasants rarely wean a bairn before its claim is disputed by the next youngster and the stoutest urchin of five years I ever saw was the son of a Servian widow, who still took him to her breast like a baby."
Dr. Page said: "In the absence of particular circumstances compelling premature weaning, I believe that the mother's milk providing the mother be in fair health and the babe evidently thriving on her milk, is the best food for the infant during the first eighteen months, and even until the end of the second year."
Dr. Kellogg says: "among primitive people nursing continues until the first teeth are complete, or for three years, although considerable other food is eaten."
Prof. Sherman, of Columbia University, says: "In China, nursing is continued for two full years and not rarely for three full years. The child thus has ample time to become adjusted to the consumption of a variety of vegetable foods before its maternal milk supply is entirely cut off."
The practice of nursing babies two years or more was, until quite recently, very common in Canada, as it was in this country forty years ago. Indeed, the long nursing period has everywhere prevailed until the practice of giving animal milk was substituted for that of the mother.
I have no patience with the theory that mother's milk becomes unfit for the child after the first year, and that a longer nursing period is injurious to the mother and child. The healthy well-fed woman can nurse her child for the period nature intended without harm to herself or child; and during this period, her own milk, if normal, is better for her child than that of any cow, goat, mare, camel, sheep, ass, or other milk animal used by man. I hold that it is the duty of every healthy mother to nurse her child during the whole of this period and that for her to lay down on the job is to rob her child of its birth right.
I do not mean that the child should exist exclusively upon milk during this whole period. It, like the sucklings of other animals, should gradually include more of other foods in its diet as the maternal supply diminishes.
It is the duty of every woman to nurse her child as long as she can. Even after the child is eating other foods it should still be receiving its milk supply from its mother's breasts. If her milk is insufficient for the needs of the child and she is forced to supplement this with the milk of animals, it is still her duty to nurse her child so long as her milk supply holds out. Mothers who refuse to do this commit a grave crime against their children.
Milo Hastings declared in an article in Physical Culture ("The Extravagance of Meat"), a few years ago, that, "The natural period for nursing the human infant is three to four years. And as the mother rarely conceives during the nursing period she would under such circumstances only bear five or six children in her lifetime. Civilization shortened the nursing period with the aid of the cow and has now in many instances eliminated it altogether. Two results followed this change. First, our utter dependence upon the cow; second, the absolute need of birth control to prevent too frequent child bearing. Someday under a perfectly rational civilization the longer period of nursing the human infant may return, but there is little chance for it in our time and hence the cow is a necessity for the nutrition of our children."
Lactation is not a fully reliable means of preventing conception, but it is as reliable as the harmful artificial means now in almost universal use and has the advantage of being harmless, if not actually beneficial. I am not sure that sexual intercourse during lactation is desirable, however.