Denied their ‘natural nourishment’: religion, causes of death and infant mortality in the Netherlands, 1875-1899

N. van den Boomen, P. Ekamper

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

At the end of the nineteenth century, infant mortality rates started to fall rapidly in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, not all regions benefited from this development. High infant death in the Roman Catholic provinces of North-Brabant and Limburg has often been ascribed to a growing reluctance of Catholic mothers to breastfeed their infants after 1870. This was supposedly caused by the combination of a strict, prudish Roman Catholic norm prohibiting women from baring their breasts and a refusal to accept new medical insights into healthy childcare. The food given to weaned children was generally of such poor quality that many infants succumbed to gastrointestinal diseases. Consequently, infant mortality rates caused by water- and food-borne infectious diseases would have been higher amongst weaned babies. By using recently digitised municipal cause-of-death registration statistics, it is possible to see if there are, indeed, indications of a shift in breastfeeding patterns after 1870. First, the authors look at infant deaths from all causes to see whether Roman Catholic municipalities underwent a rise in the mortality of children under the age of one. Second, the authors do the same for cause-specific infant mortality from typhus, typhoid fever, diarrhoea, dysentery, acute diseases of the digestive system and cholera. Based on the outcomes, there was no homogenous rise in infant mortality in all Roman Catholic municipalities. Furthermore, there is no indication that infant mortality due to digestive diseases increased uniformly in all Roman Catholic communities between 1875 and 1899. Either some communities were able to counteract the negative effects of a shift towards weaning or changes in breastfeeding patterns were not a specific Roman Catholic phenomenon at all.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)391-419
JournalThe History of the Family
Volume20
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Keywords

  • infant mortality
  • causes of death
  • breastfeeding
  • religion
  • SSCI

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