For hundreds of years wealthy women sought the services of wet nurses to feed their infants. Wet nursing had been around for a lot longer though.
In 2000 B.C the Code of Hammurabi became law in the Babylonian Empire. These oldest of known laws actually included rules for wet nursing. One of the rules said that if the wet nurse had been nursing an infant who died for any reason she was prohibited from taking on another.
The book of Exodus in the Old Testament written about 1250 B.C speaks of Moses being given to a wet nurse, although the nurse turned out to be his own mother.
In 900 B.C Homer wrote of wet nursing in his epic poems and in the Koran written around 600 A.D permitted parents to “give your child out to nurse.”
However wet nursing has not been without controversy, Hippcrates wrote in 377 B.C , “One’s own milk is beneficial, others’ harmful.”
In Sparta during the fourth century B.C., women; including the wives of kings, were required to nurse their oldest sons. In one instance a second son of a king inherited the kingdom because he had been nursed by his mother while his older brother had been wet nursed.
In ancient Greece and Rome wet nurses were slaves however they were well respected. They were housed with the infant and often kept on in the household after the baby weaned.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries high society mothers across Europe and North America placed their infants in the care of wet nurses and the child was returned home when he weaned, if he lived. Fashionable women of the day wore corsets. The corsets not only broke ribs but also damaged breast tissue and nipples, making breastfeeding impossible. Employing wet nurses was a sign of a family’s high status in society.
It was known in the 17th century of the contraceptive benefits of breastfeeding. It was also required that the wives of royalty provide heirs for their family line. Time spent nursing meant less pregnancies. It wasn’t uncommon foe noblewomen to have 12 to 18 children. By contrast, peasant women who nursed their own children and wet nursed rarely had more the half a dozen children.
During, the latter part of the 18th century, Dr. William Cadogan wrote an essay on nursing and the management of children from birth to age three. He observed that peasant women who nursed their own babies had healthier children and that early breastfeeding prevented mastitis and engorgement. He therefore advocated breastfeeding for the benefit of both mother and baby.
The turn of the century saw the establishment of human milk banks as doctors saught to improve the prognosis for babies denied breast milk since their chances of death were six times greater than breastfed infants. This began the separation of the product from the producer and removed control of feeding from wet nurses.
The industrial revolution saw women turn to work in jobs that saw them separated from their children and thus artificial feeding took off.
In many countries today, wet nursing/cross nursing is common practice. Some cultures have strong beliefs and customs that dictate the practice of nursing a baby other than one’s own baby. A baby whose mother has died or who cannot nurse is passed among nursing mothers or adopted by a lactating mother whose own baby has died. In Japan and Thailand, breast milk can be given only to a baby of the same sex as the mother’s own. In other cultures, breast milk is believed to be the conduit through which the child receives his ancestry, thus only women of the mother’s or father’s family can be a wet nurse for the infant.
So this leads me to question when wet nursing (for pay) or cross nursing (free of charge) is so taboo. When my son was in NICU I literally had to smuggle donor milk into him despite it being completely my choice to feed him milk from a woman I knew and trusted.
And isn’t it interesting that so many women are being told they don’t have enough breastmilk when it wasn’t that long ago women fed not only their own babies but others as well.
The history of artifical baby milk isn’t pretty, with a majority of babies perishing. Sir Hans Sloan wrote in 1660 that nursed infants had a mortality of 19% while dry-nursed had a rate of 54%. In Rouen, France a study conducted over two years 1763-5 showed of 132 babies weaned onto mixture of diluted cows milk, pap, soup and cider only 5 survived.
In 1753 the governor of Sweden passed a law fining women who didn’t breastfeed as it was seen as vital to an infants health.
Granted artificial baby milk has improved with technology and the ability to sterilize and can milk beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. However paediatritions have been financially involved in the production of formula from the start as pointed out in 1903 at the first intenatiomal congress on Gouttes de Lait in Paris.
Milk sharing is making a comeback though. There are two milk banks in Australia with milk available for premature or sick infants. There is also an online global milk sharing network called Human Milk 4 Human Babies which links mothers up with donor breastmilk for their babies.
Some may warn against it, however if the arrangement is made between two mothers then is it really anyone else’s business? Perhaps if cross nursing were more wide spread then mothers would feel less tied down and more willing to give breastfeeding a go. I personally would love to find a babysitter who could feed my son to sleep, and therefore I’d have the peace of mind knowing she would care for him as I would if I were ever in a pinch.
Perhaps we identify less with the peasant woman feeding her brood of many and more with the wealthy woman unable to nurse. As breastfeeding becomes more and more undervalued in our society, perhaps it is seen as trivial and not as important as other aspects of modern parenting. I would love to see the children who are orphaned, adopted, premature, unwell or who have mothers who have issues breastfeeding have access to wet nurses, women willing to cross nurse and donor milk. But somehow I doubt it will return to that.