Wet nurse

Louis XIV as an infant with his nurse Longuet de la Giraudiére
Statuette of a parclose representing a woman who presses her breast to collect milk in a bowl (a satire nourrice). – Stalls (16th century) hbof the Basilica of Saint Materne (11th century) – Walcourt (Belgium).

A wet nurse is a woman who breast feeds and cares for another's child.[1] Wet nurses are employed when the mother is unable or chooses not to nurse the child herself. Wet-nursed children may be known as "milk-siblings", and in some cultures the families are linked by a special relationship of milk kinship. Mothers who nurse each other's babies are engaging in a reciprocal act known as cross-nursing or co-nursing.


A wet nurse can help when a baby's natural mother is unable or chooses not to feed the infant. Before the development of baby formulas in the 20th century, when a mother was unable to breastfeed her baby, the baby's life was put in danger if a wet nurse was not available. There are many reasons why a mother is unable to lactate or to produce sufficient breast milk. Reasons include the serious or chronic illness of the mother and her treatment which creates a temporary difficulty to nursing. Additionally, a mother's taking drugs (prescription or recreational) may necessitate a wet nurse if a drug in any way changes the content of the mother's milk. There was also an increased need for wet nurses under circumstances when the rates of infant abandonment by mothers, and maternal death during childbirth, were high.[2] Some women choose not to breastfeed for social reasons. Many of these women were found to be of the upper class. For them, breastfeeding was considered unfashionable, in the sense that it not only prevented these women from being able to wear the fashionable clothing of their time but it was also thought to ruin their figures.[3] Mothers also lacked the support of their husbands to breastfeed their children, since hiring a wet nurse was less expensive than having to hire someone else to help run the family business and/or take care of the family household duties in their place.[3] Some women chose to hire wet nurses purely to escape from the confining and time-consuming chore of breastfeeding.[4] Wet nurses have also been used when a mother cannot produce sufficient breast milk, i.e., the mother feels incapable of adequately nursing her child, especially following multiple births. Wet nurses tend to be more common in places where maternal mortality is high.[5]

Eliciting milk

A woman can only act as a wet-nurse if she is lactating. It was once believed that a wet-nurse must have recently undergone childbirth. This is not necessarily true, as regular breast suckling can elicit lactation via a neural reflex of prolactin production and secretion.[6] Some adoptive mothers have been able to establish lactation using a breast pump so that they could feed an adopted infant.[7]

Dr Gabrielle Palmer[8] states:

There is no medical reason why women should not lactate indefinitely or feed more than one child simultaneously (known as 'tandem feeding')... some women could theoretically be able to feed up to five babies.[9]

Historical and cultural practices

Wet nursing is an ancient practice, common to many cultures. It has been linked to social class, where monarchies, the aristocracy, nobility or upper classes had their children wet-nursed in the hope of becoming pregnant again quickly. Lactation inhibits ovulation in some women, thus the practice has a rational basis. Poor women, especially those who suffered the stigma of giving birth to an illegitimate child, sometimes had to give their baby up, temporarily or permanently, to a wet-nurse.

Ancient history

Many cultures feature stories, historical or mythological, involving superhuman, supernatural, human and in some instances animal wet-nurses.

The Bible refers to Deborah, a nurse to Rebekah wife of Isaac and mother of Jacob (Israel) and Esau, who appears to have lived as a member of the household all her days. (Genesis 35:8) Midrashic commentaries on the Torah hold that the Egyptian princess Bithiah (Pharaoh's wife Asiya in the Islamic Hadith and Qur'an) attempted to wet-nurse Moses, but he would take only his biological mother's milk. (Exodus 2:6–9)

In ancient Rome, well-to-do households would have had wet-nurses (Latin nutrices, singular nutrix) among their slaves and freedwomen,[10] but some women were wet-nurses by profession, and the Digest of Roman law even refers to a wage dispute for wet-nursing services (nutricia).[11] The landmark known as the Columna Lactaria ("Milk Column") may have been a place where wet-nurses could be hired.[12] It was considered admirable for upperclass women to breastfeed their own children, but unusual and old-fashioned in the Imperial era.[13] Even women of the working classes or slaves might have their babies nursed,[14] and the Roman-era Greek gynecologist Soranus offers detailed advice on how to choose a wet-nurse.[15] Inscriptions such as religious dedications and epitaphs indicate that a nutrix would be proud of her profession.[16] One even records a nutritor lactaneus, a male "milk nurse" who presumably used a bottle.[17] Greek nurses were preferred,[18] and the Romans believed that a baby who had a Greek nutrix could imbibe the language and grow up speaking Greek as fluently as Latin.[19] The importance of the wet nurse to ancient Roman culture is indicated by the founding myth of Romulus and Remus, who were abandoned as infants but nursed by the she-wolf, as portrayed in the famous Capitoline Wolf bronze sculpture. The goddess Rumina was invoked among other birth and child development deities to promote the flow of breast milk.


Wet nursing was commonplace in the British Isles. For years, wet-nursing was a well-paid, respectable and popular job for many lower class women in England. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, a woman would earn more money as a wet nurse than her husband could as a labourer. Royal wet nurse held special regard for life.[20] It was common for upper class women to hire wet nurses to breastfeed their children. The English wet-nurse in Victorian England was most likely a single woman who previously gave birth to an illegitimate child, and was looking for work in a profession that glorified the single mother.[21] There were two types of wet nurses in Victorian England. There were wet nurses who were on poor relief and struggled to sufficiently provide for themselves or their charges, and then there were professional wet nurses who were well paid and respected. Up until the 19th century, most wet nursed infants were sent far from their families to live with their wet nurse for up to the first three years of their life.[22] As many as 80 percent of wet-nursed babies who lived with their wet nurses, died during infancy, which led to a change living conditions.[22] English women tended to work within their employers homes to take care of her charge, as well as working at hospitals that took in abandoned children. The wet-nurse's own child would likely be sent out to nurse, normally brought up by the bottle, rather than being breastfed. Valerie Fildes, author of "Breasts, Bottle and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding", argues that "In effect, wealthy parents frequently 'bought' the life of their infant for the life of another."[23] Wet-nursing in England decreased in popularity during the mid-19th century due to the writings of medical journalists concerning the undocumented dangers of wet-nursing. Valerie Fildes argued that "Britain has been lumped together with the rest of Europe in any discussion of the qualities, terms of employment and conditions of the wet nurse, and particularly the abuses of which she was supposedly guilty."[24] According to C.H.F. Routh, a medical journalist writing in the late 1850s in England, argued many evils of wet-nursing, such as wet-nurses were more likely to abandon their own children, there was increased mortality for children under the charge of a wet-nurse, and an increased physical and moral risk to a nursed child.[25] While this argument was not founded in any sort of proof, the emotional arguments of medical researchers, coupled with the protests of critics of the practice slowly increased public knowledge and brought wet-nursing into obscurity, replaced by maternal breastfeeding and bottle-feeding.[26]

For years it was a really good job for a woman. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain a woman would earn more money as a wet nurse than her husband could as a labourer. And if you were a royal wet nurse you would be honoured for life.[9]

Women took in babies for money in Victorian Britain, and nursed them themselves or fed them with whatever was cheapest. This was known as baby-farming; poor care sometimes resulted in high infant death rates. Dr Naomi Baumslag[27] noted legendary wet-nurse Judith Waterford: "In 1831, on her 81st birthday, she could still produce breast milk. In her prime she unfailingly produced two quarts (four pints or 1.9 litres) of breast milk a day."[9]


Wet nursing was reported in France in the time of Louis XIV, the early 17th century. In 18th century France, approximately 90 percent of infants were wet nursed, mostly sent away to live with their wet nurses.[28] The high demand for wet nurses coincided with the low wages and high rent prices of this era, which forced many women to have to work soon after childbirth.[22] This meant that many mothers had to send their infants away to be breastfed and cared for by wet nurses even more poor than themselves. With the high demand for wet nurses, the price to hire one increased as the standard of care decreased.[22] This led to many infant deaths. In response, rather than nursing their own children, upper class women turned to hiring wet nurses to come live with them instead. In entering into their employers home to care for their charges, these wet nurses had to leave their own infants to be nursed and cared for by women far worse off than themselves, and who likely lived at a relatively far distance away. The Bureau of Wet Nurses was created in Paris, 1769, to serve two main purposes; it supplied parents with wet nurses, as well as helped lessen the neglect of charges by controlling monthly salary payments to wet nurses.[22] In order to become a wet nurse, women had to meet a few qualifications including a good physical body with a good moral character, they were often judged on their age, their health, the number of children they had, as well as their breast shape, breast size, breast texture, nipple shape and nipple size, since all these aspects were believed to affect the quality of a woman's milk.[20] In 1874, the French government introduced the Roussel Law, which "mandated that every infant placed with a paid guardian outside the parents’ home be registered with the state so that the French government is able to monitor how many children are placed with wet nurses and how many wet nursed children have died."[22]

Mammelokker in Ghent, Belgium (detail)

Wet nurses were often hired to work in hospitals so that they could nurse premature babies, babies who were ill or babies who had been abandoned.[28] During the 18th and 19th centuries, congenital syphilis was a common cause of infant mortality in France.[29] The Vaugirard hospital in Paris began to use mercury as a treatment for syphilis, however it could not be safely administered to infants.[29] In 1780, began the process of giving mercury to wet nurses who could then transmit the treatment to the infants with syphilis through their milk in the act of breastfeeding.[29]

United States

English colonists brought the practice of wet nursing with them to North America.[20] Since the arrangement of sending infants away to live with wet nurses was the cause of so many infant deaths, by the 19th century, Americans adopted the practice of having wet nurses live with the employers in order to nurse and care for their charges.[20] This practice had the effect of increasing the death rate for wet nurses' own, biological infants. Many employers would have only kept a wet nurse for a few months at a time since it was believed that the quality of a woman's breast milk would lessen over time.[20] Since there were not any official records kept pertaining to wet nurses or wet nursed children in the United States, historians lack the knowledge of precisely how many infants were wet-nursed, for how long they were wet-nursed, whether they lived at home or else where while they wet-nursed, as well as how many wet-nursed babies lived or died.[30] The only evidence which exists, pertaining to wet-nursing in the United States is found in the help wanted ads of newspapers, through complaints about wet nurses in magazines, and through medical journals which acted as employment agencies for wet-nurses.[20] In the Southern United States, it was a very common practice for slaves to become wet nurses to their owner's children.[28] Some slaves had to leave their own children in order to wet nurse and raise their owner's child until that child was old enough to attend school, however in some instances, the slave's child and the owner's child would be raised together during their younger years.[31]

Current attitudes in Western countries

In contemporary affluent Western societies such as the United States, the act of nursing a baby other than one's own often provokes cultural discomfort. When a mother is unable to nurse her own infant, an acceptable mediated substitute is screened, pasteurized, expressed milk (or especially colostrum) donated to milk banks, analogous to blood banks. Infant formula is also widely available, which can be a reliable source of infant nutrition when prepared properly. Dr Rhonda Shaw notes that Western objections to wet-nurses are cultural:

The exchange of body fluids between different women and children, and the exposure of intimate bodily parts make some people uncomfortable. The hidden subtext of these debates has to do with perceptions of moral decency. Cultures with breast fetishes tend to conflate the sexual and erotic breast with the functional and lactating breast.[9]

The subject of wet-nursing is becoming increasingly open for discussion. During a UNICEF goodwill trip to Sierra Leone in 2008, Mexican actress Salma Hayek decided to breast-feed a local infant in front of the accompanying film crew. The sick one-week-old baby had been born the same day but a year later than her daughter, who had not yet been weaned. Hayek later discussed on camera an anecdote of her Mexican great-grandmother spontaneously breast-feeding a hungry baby in a village.[32]

Dating back to the Roman times and up until the present day, philosophers and thinkers alike have agreed that the important emotional bond between mother and child is threatened by the presence of a wet nurse.[33] Wet nurses are still common in many developing countries, although the practice poses a risk of infections such as HIV.[9] In China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, a wet-nurse may be employed in addition to a nanny as a mark of aristocracy, wealth, and high status. Additionally, a woman who wants to postpone pregnancy may wet-nurse and rear a relative (especially a poorer one's) new-born as a mancing (Javanese language for "lure"). The mythology of Asia is full of such events. Following the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, in which contaminated infant formula poisoned thousands of babies, the salaries of wet-nurses there increased dramatically.[34] The use of a wet-nurse is seen as a status symbol in some parts of modern China.[9]


Wet-nursing is a prominent theme throughout human mythology and fiction. Some include:

See also


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wet nurses.
  1. "Wet nurse, wet-nurse, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. December 1989.
  2. O'Reilly, Andrea, "Wet Nursing," Ecyclopedia of Motherhood (2010): 1271
  3. 1 2 Emily E. Stevens, Thelma E. Patrick and Rita Pickler, "A History of Infant Feeding," Journal of Perinatal Education (Spring 2009): 32-39. (accessed February 10, 2016).
  4. O'Reilly, Andrea, "Wet Nursing," Ecyclopedia of Motherhood (2010): 1271.
  5. Beeton, Mrs Isabella; janmark pagsiat (1861). Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1st ed.). London: S. O. Beeton, 18 Bouverie Street, London EC. pp. 1022–1024.
  6. E. Goljan, Pathology, 2nd ed. Mosby Elsevier, Rapid Review Series.
  7. Wilson-Clay, Barbara (1996). "Induced Lactation". The American Surrogacy Center.
  8. Lecturer in Human Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and author of The Politics of Breastfeeding
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Viv Groskop. "Viv Groskop on women who breastfeed other people's babies – Society – The Guardian". the Guardian. Retrieved 21 September 2014.
  10. Keith R. Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome: A Study in Social Relations," in The Family in Ancient Rome (Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 213.
  11. Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome," p. 214.
  12. Suzanne Dixon, Childhood, Class and Kin in the Roman World (Routledge, 2001), p. 62; Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome," p. 214.
  13. Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome," p. 201.
  14. Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome," pp. 201–202 et passim, especially p. 210.
  15. Soranus of Ephesus, Gynaecology 2.19.24–5.
  16. Celia E. Schultz, Women's Religious Activity in the Roman Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 54; Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome," p. 202ff.
  17. Evidence for bottle-feeding among the Romans is very slim, and the nutritor may have simply been a nursemaid; Bradley, "Wet-Nursing at Rome," p. 214.
  18. Soranus, Gynaecology 2.44.
  19. Richard Tames, Ancient Roman Children (Heineman, 2003), p. 11.
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ed. Paula S. Fass, "Wet Nursing," Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In history and Society (2004): 884-887.
  21. Acton, W., "Unmarried Wet Nurses," Lancet Vol. 1 (1859): 175.
  22. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wolf, Jacqueline H, "Wet Nursing," Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society (2004).
  23. Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986: 193.
  24. Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986: 152.
  25. Routh, C. H. F., "On the Mortality of Infants in Foundling Institutions, and Generally, As Influenced By the Absence of Breast-Milk." The British Medical Journal 1 (6 February 1858): 105.
  26. Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986: 243.
  27. author of Milk, Money and Madness
  28. 1 2 3 O'Reilly, Andrea, "Wet Nursing," Encyclopaedia of Motherhood (2010): 1271.
  29. 1 2 3 Sherwood, Joan, "Infection of the Innocents: Wet Nurses, Infants, and Syphilis in France, 1780-1900," McGill-Queen's University Press (2010).
  30. Golden, Janet, "A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle," Cambridge University Press (1996)
  31. O'Reilly, Andrea, "Wet Nursing," Encyclopaedia of Motherhood (2010): 1271
  32. Gerstein, Julie (11 February 2009). "Salma Hayek Breast-feeds Hungry African Babe". LemonDrop. AOL. Retrieved 11 February 2009.
  33. O'Reilly, Andrea, "Wet Nursing," Encyclopedia of Motherhood (2010): 1273.
  34. "Got Milk? Chinese Crisis Creates A Market for Human Alternatives". WSJ. 24 September 2008. Retrieved 21 September 2014.
  35. Tolstoy, Leo; translated by Peaver; Richard and Larissa Volkhonsky (2007). War and Peace. Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 1157 (Epiloge, Part One, chapter X).
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