Monday, January 28, 2013

'Downton' Question: What Is the Percentage Method?

On last night's "Downton Abbey" there was a glimpse into the world of 1920s baby formula.

After one of the characters dies (I'm doing my best to avoid a spoiler here), Downton must figure out how to feed a newborn baby without a mother.

Carson, the butler, discusses the matter with Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper.
Hughes: Mrs. Rose in the village has just had a baby. She's volunteered to nurse the child. 
Carson: Good. And I suppose she'll stay here. 
Hughes: Not for long. The doctor's sending up a pamphlet on feeding babies with something called "the percentage method." Boiled milk, water, honey, orange juice...that kind of thing.
I suppose it's not surprising that some sort of baby formula existed back then. After all, women died frequently in childbirth. It's not as if all those babies were forced to simply die as well.

In this case, the Downton estate has the resources to hire a wet nurse  a woman who can feed the child from her own breasts. (You wonder how this would affect the milk supply for that woman's own child, but perhaps that's another discussion.)

I found an article on the history of infant formula that sheds some light on the matter:
The early years of the 20th century were notable for improvements in general sanitation, dairying practices and milk handling. Most infants were breast-fed, often with some formula feeding as well. Availability of the home icebox permitted safe storage of milk and infant formula, and by the 1920s, feeding of orange juice and cod liver oil greatly decreased the incidence of scurvy and rickets. Use of evaporated milk for formula preparation decreased bacterial contamination and curd tension of infant formulas.
(I'm not entirely clear what "curd tension" is, but I think it contributed to the downfall of Saddam Hussein.)

The Wikipedia entry on infant formula addresses the "percentage method" directly (and, knowing the less-than-rigorous research methods used by "Downton Abbey" writers, it was probably the sole information they used to write the scene above):
...medical recommendations such as Thomas Morgan Rotch's "percentage method" (published in 1890) began to be distributed, and gained widespread popularity by 1907. These complex formulas recommended that parents mix cow's milk, water, cream, and sugar or honey in specific ratios to achieve the nutritional balance believed to approximate human milk reformulated in such a way as to accommodate the believed digestive capability of the infant.
While the idea of mixing up formula at home may offend our modern sensibilities, human beings have probably spent most of their history feeding weird stuff to babies.

"Cod liver? Let's give it a shot!"


Anonymous said...

Per your comment about a wet nurse's milk supply for her own baby, the biological process of milk production is such that the more a baby (or babies) nurses, the more milk is produced. This is why a woman can produce enough milk for twins or triplets--it's a system where the demand dictates the supply. So rest assured, a wet nurse would have enough milk for her baby and another, as long as she was nursing as frequently as those babies wanted to.

Nick said...

Good to know, thanks.

Mamarama said...

I'd like to add that few babies can tolerate anything other than mother's milk in the first few months. This could lead to all sorts of illnesses (or death) and long-term repercussions. The idea that the "percentage method" would be a good alternative over a wet nurse is very modern and contains a bit of physician hubris within it. As if to say "Man can easily create a scientific substitute for mother's milk." Even now, nearly a 100 years later we know that formula is a GOOD substitute, but will NEVER replicate all the benefits of mother's milk.

Nick said...

It's true I can't imagine any of our own kids agreeing to swallow something like the Percentage Method. But it makes me wonder about all those orphaned babies that didn't have access to a wet nurse.

Anonymous said...

I believe it was pointed out that the wet nurse in Downton Abbey had just lost her own baby and, therefore, had an ample supply of breast milk.

Rene Lape said...

Maybe using the "percentage method" will provide the series with an illness they must deal with in the child at a later point in the story.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Why is everyone getting so upset about this? Me and my sister were born in the 80's and fed formula and a variation of milk, oj with honey. Why all the fuss? Honey is good for the immune system and actually has antibacterial qualities. OJ is full of vitamin C.

Some women can't or don't want to breast feed - I HATE to think pro-breast feeders are suggesting that my sister and I might have "turned out better" if our mom had breast fed us instead of introducing us to other foodstuffs early.

Quite the contrary I think as both my sister and I have freakish high constitution and never get sick. We don't even get flu shots because we feel its wasted on us, when another person whose immune system isn't as strong as ours needs it more than we do.

So, how different would we have turned out if we had been "breast feed" instead?
Sandy Nathalie

Mulberry Fibers said...

Sandy, I was born in the 80s, too (1980 to be exact) and was formula fed after I was 6 weeks old. I should ask my mom what exactly she used - now I'm curious!

The problem with honey is that it can cause botulism due to spores within the honey. Children under 1 year old are especially prone to fall ill or die from that particular illness. As far as milk and oj, well...I would argue that the cow's milk protein causes a lot of problems in human babies and that today's formula counteracts that by breaking down the protein that causes trouble. Orange juice is just too acidic for babies who generally have underdeveloped gastric systems and are already dealing with gastric reflux (spit up), and even 1-2 year olds may still have trouble with it upsetting their tummies. And the mixture of the three would also be missing key elements of nutrition.

That's not to say that babies can't tolerate that mixture and thrive - you obviously did. And not that you or anyone else would "turn out better" one way or the other. Just that there are a lot of babies that wouldn't have done as well and the ingredients are problematic. :)

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