FOR thousands of years babies were routinely breastfed for the first two years of their lives, or longer.

It has been widely believed that the practice dwindled during the Victorian era amid a combination of prudishness and the emergence of artificial feeding alternatives in the late 19th Century.

However, the first study of its kind in Scotland reveals a "rapid halt" in long-term breastfeeding 500 years ago.

Archaeologists obtained tiny bone fragments from the remains of 67 children buried at Aberdeen’s St Nicholas Kirk the 12th to 18th centuries and analysed them to estimate the age at which they must have been weaned off breastmilk.

They found a "sudden" reduction around the 16th and 17th centuries.

Dr Kate Britton, who led the study at Aberdeen University, said: “It is often thought that a relatively short period of breastfeeding – of around six months - is something that emerged later in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"But our study points to a very different picture with this change occurring much earlier.

“Breastfeeding and weaning practices tell us a great deal about changing ‘social norms’ and wider economic and cultural changes."

The individuals buried in Aberdeen would have been fairly affluent and middle class, but the findings correspond to previous bio-archaeological studies in England indicating that the decline in duration of breastfeeding was occurring across all classes.

Dr Britton said further research is needed into the reasons why trends in breastfeeding changed 500 years ago, but among wealthier women it is thought it may have declined in popularity because it interfered with their outfits or pursuits, such as playing cards.

It also coincided with the expansion of cities, which accelerated the spread of ideas, and post-Reformation Protestantism which promoted the mother's role in childrearing and made wet nurses taboo.

Dr Britton said: “By analysing our data in conjunction with the results of these previous studies, we can see that trends were very similar across England and Scotland.

"For example, we can see that middle class people in Aberdeen were behaving in same way as those in London workhouses a century or so later.

“We can only speculate as to why this might be but increased urbanisation, women working outside the home and cultural changes following the Reformation may be contributing factors.

"Furthermore, maternal nursing was seen by some as inconvenient and unfashionable, interfering with social pursuits.

“An alternative was wet-nursing, but there also seems to be a corresponding decline in the social acceptance of wet nursing in this period, with medical writers and physicians in the later medieval period and into the 16th and 17th centuries discussing the link between the personal attributes of the person feeding an infant and the baby’s character.

"Red-heads, for example, were to be avoided as wet-nurses as they could make a baby hot tempered with their milk.”

The findings are published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.