Using stable isotope analysis to examine the effect of economic change on breastfeeding practices in Spitalfields, London, UK



Breastfeeding patterns were subject to a number of fads in 18th and 19th century Britain. Feeding infants by hand, rather than maternal breastfeeding or wet-nursing, became more prevalent among both the wealthy and poor. Substitute foods may have been a convenient alternative for mothers employed away from the household. This study used stable isotope ratio analysis to examine the weaning schedule in the 18th and 19th century skeletal assemblage from Spitalfields, London, UK. Analysis of 72 juvenile ribs revealed δ15N elevations of 2–3‰ above the adult mean for individuals up to the age of two, while elevations of 1–2‰ were observed in δ13C for the first year of life. This suggests that the introduction of solid foods took place before the end of the first year, and that breastfeeding had entirely ceased by 2 years of age. The age at death of many of these infants is known from historical records, and can be used to pinpoint the amount of time required for the breast milk signal to be observed in the stable isotope ratios of rib collagen. Results show that a δ15N elevation can be detected in the ribs of individuals who died as young as 5–6 weeks. Not all individuals at Spitalfields were breastfed, and there may not have been a single uniformly practiced weaning scheme. There is, however, more evidence for prolonged breastfeeding during the 19th century than the 18th century. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2011. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.