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How long were babies breastfed in medieval times?

In the medieval period, babies were often breastfed for longer periods of time compared to modern practices. Breastfeeding could last between 2 to 4 years on average, though some babies were nursed for even longer. The duration of breastfeeding was influenced by various factors like culture, class, region, and era.

Breastfeeding Practices in the Early Middle Ages

In the early medieval period from the 5th to 10th centuries, breastfeeding for 2 or more years was common especially among the lower classes. Peasant women, who made up the majority of the population, often nursed their babies for long periods due to the demands of their agricultural lifestyles. Breastfeeding allowed peasant mothers to care for their infants while also working. Wet nurses were employed by nobility and upper classes to breastfeed their children.

Religious authorities like St. Augustine encouraged mothers to nurse their own babies for an extended duration if possible. The typical weaning age was between 2 and 4 years old. However, sources from medieval Europe rarely gave precise ages for stopping breastfeeding. Many babies were simply nursed until they could eat adult foods or the mother became pregnant again.

Early Medieval Medical Views on Breastfeeding

Medieval medical thought influenced breastfeeding practices. Physicians believed breast milk was formed from menstrual blood and that menstruation could not restart until a mother finished nursing. Therefore, long breastfeeding durations prevented new pregnancies. It was also thought that breast milk was vital for infants until they grew teeth around 2 to 3 years old.

Breastfeeding in the High to Late Middle Ages

From the 11th to 15th centuries, the duration of breastfeeding for upper class women in Europe began to decline. As society became more urban and commercial, the wealthy hired wet nurses to feed their babies. This allowed noble mothers to have more children and enabled early weaning at around 12 to 18 months.

However, common and rural women still nursed their infants for prolonged periods. Among some late medieval peasant families, babies were breastfed for 3 to 4 years. But cultural shifts were underway. Literature and artworks from the 1400s depict the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus for a shorter term, reflecting changing attitudes.

Reasons for Shorter Breastfeeding in the Upper Classes

Several factors drove the shift to shorter breastfeeding durations:

  • Wet nursing allowed upper class women to have babies closer together
  • A growing urban population and commercial economy made finding wet nurses easier
  • Social conventions valued fertility and large families for the elite
  • New ideas about conception and pregnancy developed in medieval medicine

However, for the lower classes, prolonged breastfeeding remained necessary for infant health and survival.

Regional Variations in Breastfeeding

The duration of breastfeeding varied across different regions of Europe as well. In the Mediterranean, babies were typically nursed for around 2 years. In Scandinavia, infants were breastfed for longer periods averaging between 3 to 4 years of age.

Region Average Breastfeeding Duration
Mediterranean Europe 2 years
Central Europe 2 to 3 years
Scandinavia 3 to 4 years

Regional breastfeeding customs were influenced by climate, culture, economy, and religious background. Colder Scandinavian winters may have encouraged longer nursing periods. Areas with cottage industries like textiles encouraged women to breastfeed while working at home.

Breastfeeding in Special Cases

In some special circumstances, babies were nursed for unusually long periods of time:

  • Late weaning: Some babies were nursed up to age 6 or older especially if the mother struggled to conceive again.
  • Wet nurses: If a mother died in childbirth, a wet nurse could potentially nurse the baby for several years.
  • Foundlings: Abandoned infants sent to hospitals might be nursed by rotating wet nurses for up to 5 years.

However, most mothers aimed to wean their babies between ages 2 and 4.

Breastfeeding and Child Spacing

The duration of breastfeeding was a means to naturally space children. Since breastfeeding typically delays the return of fertility, nursing infants for prolonged periods helped limit births. Peasant families that relied on breastfeeding for birth control often had children around every 3 to 4 years.

Among nobility, the use of wet nurses led to shorter gaps between births. Royal and aristocratic mothers bore children as close together as every 12 to 18 months. Shorter breastfeeding durations enabled closer child spacing.

Reasons for Prolonged Breastfeeding and Child Spacing

Why did medieval mothers feed their babies for so long? Some key reasons include:

  • Allowed peasant mothers to work while caring for infants
  • Belief that breast milk was essential until age 2 or 3
  • Enabled natural child spacing between 3 to 4 years
  • Limited infant mortality risk by postponing weaning

Prolonged breastfeeding provided nutrition and maternal protection for vulnerable babies.

Weaning Foods and Methods

When medieval babies were weaned between ages 2 and 4, what foods did they eat? Most babies were gradually weaned through a transitional mixing of breast milk and solid foods. Pap, a mixture of water or animal milk with bread or cereal, was a common initial weaning food. Porridge, eggs, or pottage (a stew) were otherSoft, mashed fruits were also fed to wean babies.

More abrupt weaning could be done by smearing bitter herbs on the mother’s breasts or binding them tightly. However, most mothers aimed for a gradual transition away from breast milk. This limited weaning shocks and allowed babies to adjust to solid foods.

Common Early Weaning Foods

  • Pap or gruel – Bread boiled in water or milk
  • Porridge – Grain boiled in water or milk
  • Eggs – Scrambled or soft-boiled
  • Stews and pottages – Vegetables cooked until soft
  • Fruits – Cooked and mashed apples or pears

These simple foods helped transition medieval infants to an adult diet.

Impact of Social Class on Breastfeeding

A family’s social status greatly affected breastfeeding practices. Peasants almost universally nursed their own babies for an extended duration. Nobility and elite classes employed wet nurses at increasing rates after 1000 AD. Urbanmerchant families also turned to wet nurses due to mothers’ work opportunities.

While upper class mothers tended to breastfeed for shorter periods, they still believed breast milk was essential for their babies. However, they had the means to delegate nursing to hired wet nurses from the peasantry.

Social Class Breastfeeding Duration
Peasants 2 to 4+ years
Nobility/Elites 12 to 18 months (wet nurses)
Urban Classes Around 2 years (wet nurses)

Social factors like work patterns and fertility considerations shaped breastfeeding habits.

Impact of Wet Nursing on Breastfeeding

The use of wet nurses allowed upper class women to have babies closer together. Shorter breastfeeding durations enabled higher fertility rates among noble families. Wet nursing also meant that peasant infants may have been weaned earlier if their mothers were hired as nurses.

Wet nursing became an organized trade in many European cities by the late medieval period. While enabling upper class fertility, it shortened breastfeeding for some groups.


In summary, breastfeeding practices varied across the medieval period depending on era, social factors, region, and more. In general, babies were breastfed for longer durations between 2 to 4 years on average compared to modern times. Prolonged breastfeeding was practiced among the lower classes across Europe to enable working mothers to care for infants. The use of wet nurses became popular among the nobility after 1000 AD, leading to shorter breastfeeding periods for upper class infants. Regional customs also impacted nursing duration. Understanding medieval breastfeeding gives insight into the lives of mothers and babies in the historical era.