My husband’s late grandmother was fond of telling this story:
When her oldest child was a baby, in the late 1940s, he had to go into the hospital for a hernia.
While there with him, hubby’s grandma noticed several very tiny babies. They were sickly, and she asked what was wrong with them. The hospital staff told her that those were the babies they couldn’t find a formula for. The parents and the hospital were unable to feed them, and they were wasting away.
My husband’s grandmother would usually go on to remark on being grateful for our children’s health, which was clearly the lesson she took away from that experience. It’s a good lesson, and one I’m grateful for every day.
Recently, I’ve started thinking about this story more often. As a 21st century mother of kids who have food allergies–and one who stays up-to-date on the spectrum of food allergies and sensitivities–I’m inclined to think that those poor babies probably had milk protein allergies, FPIES, EOE, or other allergic disorders.
Most of these babies’ story is unknown–all I know is that they were wasting away and the hospital couldn’t find a formula to feed them. I don’t even know how many of them there were, although she always said “babies,” so I’m betting at least three–she might have been more specific if there were only two. That’s representative of one hospital during the length of one child’s hospital stay. It makes me think that babies who “couldn’t be fed” may have been a mainstay of pediatric units and NICUs.
Even if the babies’ parents tried breastfeeding (and maybe they did) there’s no telling whether the babies’ prognosis would have been any better. Some babies have strange reactions to their mother’s milk, and it can be difficult for mom to figure out what she should eliminate from her diet–if that even occurs to her at all. And no matter how hard she tries to feed, if baby refuses to provide the demand, the supply will dry up–especially in the days before commercial breast pumps. That leaves formula.
Formula feeding was very popular in the mid-20th century, so it’s entirely possible that some of the moms didn’t even try breastfeeding. With the widespread availability of “clean” baby formula and easy-to-use bottles, breastfeeding experienced a steady decline until the 1970s, when breastfeeding advocates and the medical establishment began pushing back and “breast is best” began. I obviously can’t go back in time and space to ask the hospital staff for more information: did the babies’ mothers try to breastfeed? If so, did any of them try to alter their own diets to eliminate foods that distressed their infants? Had they tried feeding tubes? Had the hospital heard of and tried soy formula?
The first soy formula became available in 1929 specifically for milk-allergic infants, but that doesn’t mean it was well-known or widely available. Amino acid or “elemental” formulas didn’t come about until much later: I had a hard time finding dates for most, but Neocate was formulated in 1983, and EleCare possibly in 1998. These options were certainly not available to babies in the 1940s.
(A downfall to elemental baby formulas is that they’re very expensive, and only some states require insurance to cover it. Here are a few of the most common ones.)
- Neocate, formulated in 1983
- EleCare, formulated in 1998?
- Nutramigen, formulated in ??
Infants with dairy allergies can have a notoriously hard time getting a diagnosis even now, especially if their symptoms seem non-specific (as opposed to full-blown anaphylaxis right away.) If doctors in 2016 can’t figure out dairy allergies without a lot of trial-and-error, imagine 65 years ago!
I don’t know what happened to the babies my husband’s grandmother saw in the hospital all those years ago–but to be honest I don’t expect that they survived. When a person can’t eat, death is the only outcome.
Food allergy families often wonder about reasons behind the rise in food allergies, and multiple theories abound–but maybe allergic diseases were more common in the past than we thought. Maybe we just have a better capacity for keeping allergic people alive than we did 60 years ago.