Saving the child : regional, cultural and social aspects of the infant mortality decline in Iceland, 1770-1920

Abstract: The dissertation deals with the infant mortality decline in Iceland during the 19th and early 20th Century. It shows that despite its low degree of urbanization, pre-transitional Iceland displayed higher infant mortality rates than most other European countries. Levels are only comparable with a few areas in Europe, all of whom were known for a tradition of artificial feeding of newborns. In the Icelandic case, infants were either not breastfed at all or were weaned at a very young age.Another characteristic of infant mortality in Iceland were huge fluctuations during epidemics. Because of the isolation of the country, several diseases that had become endemie in other societies, such as measles, became dangerous epidemics in Iceland and affected all age groups. After 1850 the effects of epidemics declined and 20 years later there was a steep decline in infant mortality. By the beginning of the 20th Century infant mortality in Iceland was lower than in most other societies.Although epidemics often had important temporary consequences upon infant mortality level in pretransitional Iceland, being breastfed or not was without doubt the most important determinant of infant survival. There were huge differences in infant mortality levels between areas where breastfeeding was common and those where newborns were artificially fed. Towards the turn of the 20th Century significant changes occurred. Even though there were still differences in infant mortality between those babies who were breastfed and those who were not, infant survival had improved greatly and survival chances of Icelandic newborns that were fed artificially became in an international perspective relatively good.Midwives played a central role in the infant mortality decline in Iceland. Growing secularization during the second part of the 19th Century improved educational opportunities for women and also changed the content of education. Improved educational opportunities were reflected in changes in the education of midwives. At the same time there was growth in the publication of books that directly dealt with the issue of infant health. The increase in the number of educated midwives was a factor of central importance. The interaction between midwives and a literate population was most likely the key to infant survival in the Nordic countries. This study shows that that the custom to breastfeed spread earlier in areas with higher literacy. Not only is it plausible that the interest in changing prevailing traditions was directly related to literaey levels of individuai mothers, it is also shown that midwives had the best education in areas where literacy rates were high. On the other hand, the remarkable improvements in infant survival obtained towards the end of the 19th Century were scarcely linked to changes in the economic structure. Those factors only started to play an important role in the 20th Century. In its initial stages, changes in infant feeding and improvements in personal hygiene were more important