Impacts of Milk Consumption on Child Development in 1960s Mexico

Though milk consumption is vital to child development, it was not always easy to access in Mexico during the 1960s, which caused negative health impacts for children. During this period, mothers had options for giving their child proper nutrition, two of which were breast milk and formula. This research will examine why mothers in Mexico made these choices because not all families had equal access to each option. Due to a family’s economic situation and geographic location, families may have been unable to access formula or cow’s milk. Additionally, if the family lacked knowledge on infant feeding or were illiterate, they may not have known how to use formula. To build on this, I will analyze misconceptions of using the available feeding methods. When parents faced feeding difficulties and their infant was not given the nutrition it required, there was a higher risk of negative outcomes, including malnutrition and death. When the infant reached childhood, families were again faced with hardships to obtain dairy milk for their child. While these problems were occurring at home, scientific research and government policy makers were beginning to view milk consumption as being essential for proper child development. To build on this, I will examine the impact that governmental nutrition programs had on milk consumption. Much of this research utilizes sources that focus on Mexico City and on all of Mexico during the 1960s. To support my arguments, this research is composed of a variety of sources, including academic journals and scholarly articles written by professional historians.

When an infant is born, all mothers decide how they prefer to feed their baby. A study done in Mexico concluded that “breastfeeding is a primary means of preventing infant morbidity and mortality in developing countries” [1] because it gives babies the best nutrition and builds their immunity [1]. Mothers also could choose to breastfeed their infant by paying a wet nurse to supply breast milk for the baby [2]. However, many mothers may have had difficulty with their breast milk supply, which would force them to make a choice. To put further pressure on mothers, infant formula manufacturers relentlessly marketed their products in developing countries, such as Mexico. Companies such as Nestlé were accused of pushing mothers into using formula products because they claimed that mothers should “adopt the modern, scientific infant feeding practice of bottle-feeding formula.” [3] Additionally, these manufacturers were accused of hiring labor and delivery nurses to sell their formula [3]. If these accusations are true, it means that formula manufacturers were not considering Mexico’s demographics or the wellbeing of the country’s infants because some mothers were illiterate and could not “read the instructions that tell her to sterilize the bottles, the nipples, and the water...[mixed] with the formula.” [3] Additionally, these mothers may not have had anyone to teach them how to properly serve infant formula. Infants may have become sick, or even died, due to corporation greediness and unwillingness to provide necessary knowledge.

Research has shown that when families could not access feeding options or sanitized water, there were detrimental effects for infants. A study by David Fox on morbidity and mortality patterns in Mexico City during the 1960s analyzed the cause of death in all ages compared to their environment. Fox concluded that “high death rates among infants...from gastroenteritis...are linked with inadequate water and sewage facilities,...the absence of a proper kitchen, and...other deficiencies of the domestic environment.” [4] In these areas, it is likely that formula was not prepared with clean water or sanitized bottle parts, and that bottles were not thoroughly cleaned after each use. In zones with the correlation, it may have been common for infants to become sick and dehydrated, potentially leading to death.

After reaching childhood, families had to find a way to make sure their children received dairy milk products. However, parents did not always have the resources to gain it. Some families had “neither cows nor goats to produce milk” [5] in their towns, and many indigenous people became sick when drinking milk due to being lactose-intolerant [5]. Before government intervention, milk was expensive to purchase relative to salary and wages in Mexico. “In 1945 a bottle of milk...cost [between] 47¢ at dairies...and 56¢ delivered at home...[while] minimum wage [that year] was [between] $1.65 in rural areas and $1.90 in cities.” [5] Therefore, milk was a large part of an average worker’s salary. Lower-class workers would not have wanted to spend money on milk, opting instead to buy more food for their families. To add greater hardship, milk “had to be keep [it] households without a refrigerator.” [5] To help families receive milk, the Mexican government started “importing powdered milk...and distributing it through subsidized state shops and the school breakfast program.” [5]

Unlike in lower class families, cow’s milk was consumed daily in middle- and upper-class families. In the 1950s, milk was too expensive, so it was a type of luxury that set the upper classes apart. While reconstituted milk was a more affordable option to obtain milk in the 1960s, the “better-off families...[now] had refrigerators to drink it cold, [setting them] apart from the poor, who could only have it warm or hot.” [5] Additionally, ”condensed and evaporated milk remained a commodity of middle- and upper-class households.”[5]

While parents struggled to feed their children, scientific research started to stress the importance of milk consumption during childhood. To support this knowledge, and “to modernize their promoting the health and welfare of children,” [6] the Mexican government created policies to help children receive milk and, therefore, develop properly. One important policy was the LICONSA program that “provide[d] milk powder and liquid milk at subsidized prices to low-income families” [7] in both rural and urban settings. In order to access milk products, families were given cards that “entitle[d] poor children living in marginal zones to buy 4 liters of milk per child/per week at discounted prices” [7] and children in Mexico City to have 8 liters of milk each per week [7]. While there were good intentions, the program only gave allowance to kids that were five years old and younger until more recently [7]. Additionally, some rural families may have had geographic barriers preventing access to milk products and would not have been able to utilize the cards.

Milk played a huge role in infant development in Mexico during the 1960s, and the government attempted to solidify a similar role for it during childhood. In infancy, families had to make the choice of how they would feed their babies. If they were unable to feed their infants effectively, or if they were unable to follow safe feeding practices, they risked detrimental effects on the life of the baby. Once an infant reached childhood, the government tried to push the nutritional importance of milk on families, though milk products were often only affordable for middle- and upper-class families. Also, milk may not have been geographically easy to access for many rural families, and indigenous populations were not able to drink it without becoming sick.