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Infants, Nutrition and Health in 20th Century Montreal

By Nathalie Lampron

Montreal expanded rapidly after 1900. There were more and more children in the different neighbourhoods of the city, especially after the Second World War. In the 1930s, the city had the largest urban population in Quebec and, by the late 20th century, fully half of all Quebecers lived in Montreal and the surrounding area.

Infant mortality

Early in the century the infant mortality rate in Montreal was higher than in any other large city in the Western world. In Montreal in 1900, one child in four died before the age of one! (In 1999, the infant mortality rate was one in... 185.) This was a particular problem in poor neighbourhoods, where children also lived in dirty, poorly ventilated, overcrowded, dark flats. Many children lost brothers and sisters.

Contaminated milk and unsafe drinking water were important causes of mortality. They led to fatal diarrhea in many newborns. Something had to be done! Montreal built its first water-filtration plant in 1914. Public health officials launched information campaigns, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, encouraging mothers to adopt safer feeding practices for their babies.

Their efforts bore fruit and the infant mortality rate declined considerably. From the 1920s onward, a medical approach to childbirth and baby care became popular, a trend that continued to grow over the course of the century. After the Second World War attention turned to another objective: reducing the number of premature births.

Milk and nutrition

Modern technology makes it possible to safely store milk and other perishable foods. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case a hundred years ago, when far too many youngsters died from drinking contaminated unpasteurized milk, especially in summer.

Although baby formula made from a blend of wheat, cow's milk and malt was first sold in 1867, it was not until 1915 that "formula" was refined to produce S.M.A. (Synthetic Milk Adapted). This new product resembled human breast milk more closely, making it better suited to babies' constitutions.

Education campaigns for mothers focussed on breastfeeding, recognized by reformers at the time as the healthiest choice for babies. "Gouttes de lait" babycare centres were established in many of Montreal's poorest neighbourhoods starting in 1910. Mothers could go there at no cost and get pure milk and medical attention for their infants.

In 1914 only one-quarter of all milk consumed in Montreal was pasteurized (sufficiently heated to destroy the dangerous bacteria in it). Only the well-off neighbourhoods in the western part of the city had access to pasteurized milk at the time. City officials made the process mandatory in 1925 and sent out inspectors to enforce standards.

Jean St-Germain, a Quebec inventor, was responsible for a revolutionary change in baby feeding. In 1953, at age 16, he invented disposable baby bottle liners. The pre-sterilized liners collapse and contract as the baby sucks, reducing gas that can often cause colic. Mr. St-Germain went on to develop over 130 other inventions!

There were other advances in the feeding of infants. In 1931, three doctors from Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, Frederick Tisdall, Theodore Drake and Alan Brown, developed a remarkable Canadian innovation: Pablum, a cereal containing all the essential nutrients for healthy early growth, including minerals and vitamins A, B1, B2, D and E. Feeding babies Pablum also decreased the period's high incidence of nutritional rickets, a serious disease that causes softening of the bones. In 1961, Dr. Charles Scriver, a research pioneer at the Montreal Children's Hospital, linked rickets with a Vitamin D deficiency. This discovery led to the routine addition of Vitamin D to bottled milk, a move that has virtually eliminated nutritional rickets in Canadian children.

A Montreal birth

Back in 1900, most babies were born at home with the help of a midwife or doctor. Changes in medicine and health care over the century made childbirth safer and greatly increased both mothers' and babies' chances of survival. Eventually, more and more women went to a hospital to give birth. By the 1960s, home births had become rare.

Women also played an active role in changing birthing practices. Bolstered by research on the importance of early infant-parent bonding and skeptical of certain medical procedures, women pressured doctors to provide less-technical options in routine pregnancies. In the 1980s some local hospitals created birthing rooms where babies could be born in a home-like environment. Then, in 1994, the first birthing centre was opened. Here midwives deliver babies, but medical assistance is also available close by.

Pediatrics - specialized children's medicine - emerged in the early 20th century. Hospitals devoted solely to caring for children were built in Montreal in the first decade of the century. They improved tremendously in the post-First World-War period, offering the expertise, equipment and treatment needed to help sick children. In 1961, a government program made free hospital care available to all Quebecers. Visits to the doctor began to be covered by Quebec health care in 1970.

Modern medicine makes it possible to prevent and cure many childhood diseases that were fatal one hundred years ago. Today, accidents are the leading cause of death for children.


Source: "Growing Up in Montreal" Exhibition Texts, 2004-2007


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