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What did babies eat in ancient times?

The food and feeding practices of infants and young children in ancient times varied greatly across different cultures and time periods. However, some common themes emerge when examining the archaeological, artistic, and written records that provide glimpses into ancient baby diets and nutrition. Understanding what babies ate in the distant past can shed light on cultural values, childcare practices, and beliefs surrounding diet and health in earlier eras of human civilization.

Breastfeeding in the Ancient World

Breastfeeding was the norm for infant feeding going back to ancient prehistoric times and continuing through ancient history in most parts of the world. Analyses of chemical traces in skeletal remains confirm that breastfeeding was practiced in both the Old and New Worlds during antiquity. For example, studies of infant bones from ancient Egypt, China, and the Americas reveal signs of breastfeeding.

Additionally, artistic depictions from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and other early civilizations frequently show mothers suckling their infants. Ancient written sources also document the prevalence of breastfeeding. For instance, in 2nd century China, the government advised new mothers to breastfeed for the baby’s health, while ancient Hindu, Greek, and Islamic texts discuss appropriate breastfeeding practices.

However breastmilk alone was generally not sufficient to meet all caloric needs for infants older than about 6 months of age. Most babies throughout antiquity would have received complementary foods in addition to breastmilk from about 6 months onward.

First Solid Foods in Ancient Cultures

Once complementary feeding began, the first solid foods consumed by ancient babies varied across time and place depending on the food sources available. Archaeological evidence indicates that in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, first solid foods were likely mashed or pre-chewed versions of whatever adults were eating. This might include foods like meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, berries, vegetables, and tubers. Porridge made from grains may have also been used once agricultural societies emerged.

In the ancient Near East and Egypt, some of the first solids fed to infants included diluted wine or beer, fresh cheeses, boiled grains, bread soaked in milk or broth, mashed dates, and honey. Ancient Greek and Roman writers discuss feeding emmer wheat, olive oil, moistened bread, and honey to infants starting complementary feeding.

In ancient India, suggested first foods for babies mentioned in texts like the Kashyap Samhita (around the 6th century BCE) include honey, boiled rice, and plant-based milk. In the Americas, archaeological evidence points to early infant foods like maize (corn) pap, potatoes, quinoa, and chia seeds, as well as chewed meat and fish.

Differences Based on Social Class

Throughout the ancient world, an infant’s diet was heavily influenced by the family’s social status and means. Among the lower classes, babies tended to be exclusively breastfed for longer, sometimes for several years. Solid foods were introduced gradually as mothers could acquire and prepare them.

In contrast, babies of royalty, nobility, and other elites across cultures often received expensive supplementary foods like animal milk, eggs, and meat at an earlier age. Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese texts refer to infant formulas made from ingredients like buffalo or goat milk and egg yolks fed to high-status babies via vessels. Private wet nurses were also commonly employed to breastfeed royal infants in many ancient societies.

Ancient Egypt

Hieroglyphic writings and excavated feeding vessels provide evidence that Egyptian infants of high rank received supplementary foods earlier than those of humbler origins. For example, clay feeding bottles from ancient Egyptian tombs point to animal milk supplements for elite infants. An ancient text also mentions a chicken egg yolk mixture fed to royal Egyptian babies starting at four months old.

Ancient Rome

The Roman writer Soranus in the 2nd century A.D. recommended that lower class women exclusively breastfeed for the infant’s first 6 months, while upper class women could supplement with other milks and solids from 2-3 months onward. He considered early introduction of solids acceptable for wealthy infants but potentially harmful for babies of “the poor.”

Ancient Concerns About Infant Diet and Regimen

Texts from antiquity indicate that many ancient societies had specific ideas about appropriate diet and feeding methods for infants. Certain dietary regimens were believed to impact a baby’s health and temperament. However, recommendations given in ancient writings often differed and sometimes conflicted.

Dietary Theory in Ancient Greece and Rome

The ancient Greek physician Galen in the 2nd century A.D. wrote that infants under six months should receive only breastmilk or possibly animal milks, which he considered nutritionally analogous. He warned that early introduction of solid foods could cause diarrhea, fevers, and even death.

However, the diet Galen proposed for older infants including wines, cheeses, and various solids differs from modern nutritional advice. His contemporary Soranus conversely felt spring water was the only suitable drink for babies. Recommended first foods also included bread products in both Greek and Roman texts.

Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine

In Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine, authors emphasized breastfeeding for at least the first six months. Honey was believed to improve digestion and intellect if fed to babies over one month old. Giving meat before teeth emerged, eating hot or oily foods, and overfeeding were discouraged.

In traditional Chinese medicine texts, mothers are advised to avoid “conflicting foods” like honey, eggs, fish, and shellfish for infant digestion. Porridge, millet gruel, and boiled vegetables were considered easily digestible first foods.

Islamic and Jewish Traditions

Medieval Islamic writers recommended gradual weaning starting around two years old, accompanied by calm, loving care. Staple first foods mentioned include dates, olive oil, diluted Arabic gum, and breadcrumbs soaked in milk or broth.

Under Jewish law, it was customary to feed honey to male babies on the 8th day after birth during the bris ceremony. This was believed to ensure future enjoyment of Torah study. Wet nurses were often hired for newborns while the mother recovered postpartum.

Methods of Feeding Infants in Antiquity

In addition to diet composition, many ancient sources discuss proper techniques for feeding babies. Advised methods range from exclusively breastfeeding to hand-feeding vessels and pre-chewing foods.

Breastfeeding Positions

Images in ancient Egyptian art commonly depict babies breastfeeding while sitting upright in the mother’s lap. Swaddling infants in cloth was also practiced during breastfeeding and sleep in many parts of the ancient world. Greek and Roman texts advise holding the baby to the breast in a reclined position to aid digestion.

Alternative Feeding Vessels

Clay feeding bottles excavated from ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern sites indicate that animal milk supplements were fed to some infants via containers. Across medieval Islamic regions, curved ceramic feeding cups were used to hand-feed babies milk or broth starting around six months of age.

Pre-chewing and Pre-digesting

Partially masticating or pre-digesting solid foods was practiced in many early cultures to ease babies’ transition to solids. Egyptian art depicts this method, while Roman writings refer to bread chewed by nurses before feeding. Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine texts also describe caregivers pre-chewing rice, meat, or pulses for infants.

Weaning and Completing the Transition to Solid Foods

Weaning, or the process of gradually introducing more solids while phasing out breastmilk, proceeded at varying paces in different ancient societies. Complete weaning age could range from around one to four years old. Social status, gender, and cultural beliefs likely influenced weaning periods.

High rates of infant mortality in antiquity motivated keeping babies on breastmilk longer, especially among poor families with limited access to safe replacement foods. Some Greek writings recommend breastfeeding for three years, while two years is advised in traditional Islamic sources.

However, earlier weaning often occurred among elites eager to conceive again. Egyptian texts reference royal infants being appointed wet nurses and weaned as early as 15 months old. Babies were commonly weaned earlier in ancient Greece and Rome as well, though authorities like Soranus warned against abruptly ceasing breastfeeding.

Introducing Family Foods

As more diverse solids replaced breastmilk, babies transitioned to eating versions of typical adult foods in most ancient cultures. Soaked or mashed staples like wheat or rice, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, meat, and porridges were likely first family foods.

In some regions like India, the first family meal was ritualized. Ancient Hindu ceremonies involved feeding a baby its first bites of rice during annaprashana around six months old.

Role of Wet Nurses

Wet nurses were enlisted by elites in many ancient civilizations to either supplement feeding or entirely replace the mother. This allowed upper class women to conceive again sooner. Wet nurses received extra rations to support milk production.

However, reliance on wet nurses resulted in some royal infants being weaned prematurely if the nurse became pregnant. Greek writers like Soranus warned against this practice, and advised wet nurses nurse for at least 12-18 months to ensure healthy development.

Impact of Geography and Agriculture on Ancient Baby Diets

Geographical location and the emergence of agriculture fundamentally shaped the foods available to babies in a given region of the ancient world. Hunter-gatherer diets gave way to cereal-based meals in many early agricultural civilizations.

Region Dominant Crops Sample First Foods
Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt) Wheat, barley, legumes Bread, porridge, beer
Indus Valley (India, Pakistan) Rice, millet Rice pap, millet porridge
Ancient Greece and Rome Wheat, olives, grapes Wheat pap, olive oil
Ancient China Millet, rice Congee, rice porridge
Mesoamerica (Maya, Aztec) Maize, beans, squash Maize pap, bean purees
Andean South America Quinoa, potatoes, maize Quinoa porridge, mashed potatoes

As shown in the table, early grains and starches like wheat, rice, millet, maize, and potatoes emerged as first baby foods in many ancient agricultural communities. Fruits, vegetables, pulses, meat, and fish were supplementary foods based on regional availability and means.

Impacts of Food Processing Technology

Technological developments in food processing, cooking, and storage expanded infant diet options in some ancient societies by making new textures and dishes possible.

Effects of Cooking

The advent of cooking with fire allowed people to boil, mash, blend, and pre-digest foods for babies who lacked teeth. Hard items like grains and tubers became digestible when cooked to soft consistencies.

Steaming and boiling were advised as healthy infant cooking methods in ancient Chinese medicine. Heating and fermenting dairy products also made them safer and more digestible for babies in places where herding developed.

Processed Commercial Baby Foods

Grinding grains into flour enabled processed baby food preparations like wheat-flour pap and baby biscuits in some ancient cultures. The Roman writer Galen mentions poultices, or thick flour-based pap, fed to infants. Commercial infant cereals and pap mixtures were also produced in medieval Islamic regions.

However, many families likely continued preparing homemade first foods well into modern times. Processed baby foods only became widespread in the late 19th and 20th centuries with industrialization.

Milk Processing

Advances in storing and processing milk through steps like cheesemaking, fermentation, and evaporation extended milk’s longevity and enabled wider infant feeding. Condensed milk was concentrated into transportable and shelf-stable forms. Fresh cheese curds were digestible early baby foods mentioned in ancient European and Near Eastern texts.

Evolution of Feeding Practices and Beliefs

While many beneficial infant feeding traditions were maintained, some practices in antiquity diverged from modern recommendations due to limited scientific knowledge. However, core positive values around loving nourishment endured.

Persistent Traditions

Breastfeeding remains the biologically normal first food for infants today, as it was in antiquity. The immunities and active nutrients in breastmilk cannot be duplicated. Most authorities still recommend exclusive breastfeeding for around the first 6 months of life before starting solids.

Gradual weaning and introducing diverse family foods continue as the typical culmination of complementary feeding across cultures. Babies digest smooth, mashed versions of family meals more easily than adult-textured pieces.

Outdated Beliefs

Some early feeding advice was inconsistent with current understanding of infant nutrition. For example, ancient European texts encouraged diluting wine or beer for babies to drink, whereas pediatricians now recommend only breastmilk or formula before one year old.

Early solid foods in ancient writings also leaned heavily towards starchy pap-like cereals, which lack adequate proteins for growth. Early introduction of allergens like eggs, fish, and honey raises modern concerns but was often advised in antiquity.

Improved Hygiene

Modern sanitation practices help prevent foodborne illness in infants today. Boiling water for formula, refrigerating milk, handwashing, and sterilizing equipment all help keep early foods safe for babies’ developing immune systems in ways less possible historically.

Caregivers in antiquity could not avoid higher risks of pathogens and contamination in infant foods and vessels without this knowledge.


Infant feeding practices have transformed over human history as cultural values around children, health beliefs, food systems, and technology progressed. While ancient diets differed from today’s understanding of ideal nutrition, most traditional feeding aimed to lovingly nourish babies based on available resources and knowledge.

Looking back allows us to chart how far infant care has advanced. But timeless wisdom around gentle, responsive feeding remains sage advice from our ancestors in antiquity to modern parents.