The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Lead Nipple Shield

About This Item

Title

Lead Nipple Shield

Subject

Equipment and supplies
Lead
Poisoning
Bottle feeding

Description

Until the 20th century, an infant whose own mother could not breastfeed it had the best chance of survival if it was fed by another lactating woman, known as a “wet nurse.” The alternative, artificial feeding of infants, also has a long history. Feeding vessels have been made out of materials such as pottery, wood, bone, horn, metal, and glass. Rags, pieces of sponge, hides, and other natural materials were used as nipples, either by themselves or placed over a vessel’s opening. Rubber did not become common until much later.

Artificial feeding could be dangerous for an infant. Cows’ milk, soaked bread, and other substitutes for human breast milk did not always provide enough nutrition, and spoilage and contamination were even greater hazards. In the early 19th century, dirty feeding devices and lack of refrigeration led to the death of one-third of all artificially fed infants during their first year of life. During the 20th century, refrigeration, nutritionally complete feeding formulas, and bottles and rubber nipples that could be cleaned and sterilized made artificial feeding much safer.

This metal object, which contains lead, is most likely made from pewter, which was sometimes used for baby bottles in the past; however, its shape is puzzling. It’s not clear how it could have been attached to a container, although the flange near the base shows that a “nipple” of rubber or latex would have fitted over it.

It is possible that, instead of a bottle nipple, the object could be a nipple shield. These devices for protecting the sore nipples of nursing mothers were often made of wood, ivory, silver, or pewter. Some were perforated for the infant to feed through them (using an additional covering of soft material), while others were solid, worn for protection between feedings.

Solid nipple shields made of lead were used for many decades. Manufacturers claimed that the flexible shields would not only protect against chafing, but milk inside the shields would combine with the lead to form “lactate of lead,” which would help to heal the nipples. Though the shields were allegedly “in no way likely to be injurious to the infant,” mothers were supposed to wipe their breasts thoroughly before nursing to remove the lead residue. Despite this precaution, there were numerous cases of lead poisoning among infants whose mothers had used lead nipple shields. By the late 1930s, the U.S. government was seizing and destroying hundreds of shipments of these “dangerous devices.”

Publisher

Digitized by the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Contributor

Miss Virginia Walker, Donor

Identifier

MISC-1072

Coverage

19th Century

Original Format

Metal, contains lead (tested 05/2008); possibly pewter

Citation

“Lead Nipple Shield,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library, accessed March 20, 2019, https://www.cppdigitallibrary.org/items/show/2595.