Montreal -- Breastfeeding increased infant survival rates in 19th -Century Montreal in two major ways, according to research from Concordia University and McGill University. Mother's milk protected vulnerable infants from food and water contaminated by fecal bacteria, while breastfeeding postponed the arrival of more siblings and that improved the health of mothers as well as their subsequent children.
Published in the journal Population Studies, using data gathered from Montreal's civil burial records and the 1881 Census, the study examined how poverty, poor sanitation, disease and various cultural factors affected death rates among newborns and children.
"Infant feeding practices, such as how long to breastfeed, at what age to introduce food supplements and in what season to wean, all influenced infant survival and all were subject to cultural tradition," says first author Patricia Thornton, a professor in the Concordia University Department of Geography, Planning and Environment.
Cultural groups that stopped breastfeeding earlier and especially before the summer when rising temperatures, dry weather and falling water table made contamination worst, were also more likely to have their next child more rapidly and less likely to limit their family size. This caused both the mother's and her next child's health to suffer.
"Poverty, high population density, room crowding and contagious diseases all affected death rates among children, yet these effects were nuanced by cultural identity," says co-author Sherry Olson, a professor in the McGill University Department of Geography.
The cultural factor
Studying 19th - Century health in Montreal was compelling for Thornton and Olson, since the city featured three well defined cultural groups: French Canadians, Irish Catholics and Protestants from Great Britain and Ireland. Each group had their own residential and occupational profile.
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