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Bring Back the Wet Nurse!

A solution for working mothers that has been around for centuries

When a yuppie American woman learns she is pregnant, she has a whole world of options available to her. She can hire a doula, or sign up for pre-natal yoga. She could give birth in the Lotus position like a Balinese woman, or in a body of water, like her ancestors might have. She could have her placenta frozen and preserved, perhaps with a nod to the African Igbo, who ascribe mystical power to the so-called afterbirth—or because she subscribes to the much-debated virtues of consuming the placenta.

She will probably feel that she has less choice, however, when it comes to how she will feed her baby: She likely feels compelled to breastfeed, not just for the health benefits for both her and her baby, but because she’s been told that it’s natural and organic and traditional. Breastfeeding is increasingly the norm—see Bloomberg’s initiatives for New York City women, provisions in the Affordable Care Act for nursing mothers, and pop-culture phenomena like the documentary Breastmilk, just to name a few political and cultural factors. At the same time, working mothers are urged to lean in, leaving them less time for traditional maternal duties like nursing. 

We generally have few qualms about borrowing birthing and child-rearing customs from women remote in time and place. A large part of Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday, looked at what traditional cultures could teach Western ones about child-rearing. But there’s one practice that, despite widespread historic acceptance, remains taboo in Western culture: wet nursing. Perhaps, with professional and maternal pressures simultaneously mounting, it is time to reconsider this aversion. Perhaps women who can’t breastfeed or are just stressed out by its physical, mental, and logistical toll should delegate this duty to someone else. 

“It was not the vacuum that was keeping me and my 21st-century sisters down,” Hanna Rosin wrote in The Atlantic a few years ago, “but another sucking sound.” Desperate women fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars for “lactation consultants,” who troubleshoot problems like low milk production and sore nipples. Some mothers struggling to produce milk have resorted to popping prescription pills meant for gastrointestinal disease. Breastfeeding doesn’t always come naturally to babies, either; in Breastmilk, a mother takes her son, who’s failing to latch on, to get his frenulum snipped in the hopes that it’ll help him nurse more easily. 

Middle-class peer pressure is underlined by a slew of research that points to the benefits of breastfeeding: Studies have suggested that nursing strengthens babies’ immune systems, makes them less vulnerable to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and lowers their risk of developing diseases ranging from ear infections and allergies to diabetes and cancer. A study last year finding that each additional month of breastfeeding turns into a half-point gain in IQ by age seven was widely and gleefully reported. (As Amy Sullivan has written, there are legitimate questions about the way many of the studies that report the benefits of breastfeeding are conducted.) 

At the same time that the pressure on women to act as human milk machines has ratcheted up, so has the pressure not to miss a beat at work. For many feminists, “housewife” might as well be a dirty word; euphemisms like “stay-at-home-mom” and “homemaker” aren’t much better. Super-moms like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have only given the working-mom routine a veneer of manageability, while often sidestepping the immense privilege (and assistance) that these women possess.  Breast pumps are of imperfect assistance: Pumping at work can be awkward and inconvenient, and their functionality is anything but sleek. Despite the fact that the market for these machines will reach 5.63 million units in 2015, the unwieldy machines have not undergone a major redesign in almost 60 years.  

Sharing nursing responsibilities—whether by hiring a paid wet nurse or by figuring out an informal arrangement with friends (a practice more often called “cross-nursing”)—seems like a reasonable solution. It could relieve the burden on working mothers without compromising their babies’ feeding. It could take the pressure off women who find breastfeeding painful or impractical. It could make it possible for babies who aren’t being brought up by their biological mothers to breastfeed. 

Wet nurses—that is, a woman who nurses a baby who is not her own—have fed some of the most famous babies in fiction and myth—from Rebecca, the Biblical wife of Isaac, to Muhammad to Shakespeare’s Juliet. Louis XIV was painted suckling at the breast of a woman who was not his mother. “Since time immemorial, families and institutions have hired wet nurses to breastfeed infants who have lost their mothers or whose mothers were not breastfeeding them for whatever reason,” lactation consultant Virginia Thorley wrote in Breastfeeding Review, the journal of the Australian Breastfeeding Association, in 2008.    

Charles Beaubrun/WikipediaLouis XIV with his wet nurse. 

Higher rates of infant mortality prior to the twentieth century also indirectly supported the role of the wet nurse. “If you had a baby and it died, you’d have a window of opportunity to make some money,” says writer Erika Eisdorfer, who researched wet nursing in the Victorian era while writing a historical novel, A Wet Nurse’s Tale, set in nineteenth-century England. “You could go work as a wet nurse and feed one baby, and when that baby was ready to be weaned you could go on to the next baby and the next,” Eisdorfer told me over the phone. “As long as a baby’s suckling, you’ll produce milk.” She estimates that a wet nurse’s career could last nine or ten years. “Wealthier families would look for young, firm women, but families that couldn’t afford to be so picky would take what they could get.” The popular 1861 domestic guide-book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management advised families to seek out a woman between 20 and 30 years old. 

In the nineteenth century, wet nurses could advertise their services in community newspapers or ask local doctors to spread the word. “During the heyday of wet nurse advertising in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, women typically emphasized four qualities: good health, upstanding character, plentiful milk, and milk that was fresh,” Janet Golden wrote in A Social History of Wet Nursing in America. One wet nurse advertising her services in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1837 described herself as “a healthy young English woman having abundance of milk,” promising that she “has nothing to engage her time except her own child which is three months old.” So high was the demand that nineteenth-century wet nurses had their pick of families to work for; according to a 1886 article in Popular Science Monthly, “The search for a wet-nurse is one of the most disheartening. The supply is in no way proportioned to the demand.”

Wet nursing was not without complications. While modern mothers might worry about their babies getting the right nutrients, upper-class English mothers fretted that the wet nurse would transmit some moral failing or lower-class value. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management advised women to put up their wet nurses in their own homes, if possible, in order to monitor their behavior and ensure they conformed to Victorian codes of virtue and chastity. Not that her physical state could be ignored: According to Mrs. Beeton, families should look for a wet nurse with a “clear open countenance,” “a natural vigor” at meal times and “full, round, and elastic” breasts. 

An excerpt from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that wet nursing began to fall out of fashion in the Western world. In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, mothers in newly prosperous societies found themselves with more time on their hands, some of which they chose to invest in child-rearing; they became less inclined to pass off child-related chores, including breastfeeding. Inventions like the baby bottle and commercial formula in the early 1900s also offered alternatives to women who didn’t want to outsource the feeding of their babies but couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed.

In non-Western parts of the world, however, wet-nursing continued—creating distinct cultural structures and associations. In many parts of the Islamic world, where sisters and female friends traditionally nurse each other’s children, unrelated babies who breastfeed from the same woman enter into a special lifelong relationship as “milk kin,” and are forbidden from marrying each other. Remco Ensel, an anthropologist at the Free University in Amsterdam, observed a similar pattern in contemporary pre-Saharan Morocco.“In Morocco, like in North Africa or the Islamic world, co-lactation involves legal obligations,” he wrote in an email. “Milk children and milk mothers become ‘related,’ which implies that the incest taboo applies. In Morocco, it was used in tribal peace arrangements and in villages to cement patron-client relations.” Cross-feeding can strengthen ties among friends, too; according to a Moroccan proverb, “He who has no milk, has no friend.”

Alma Gottlieb, a cultural anthropologist currently based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, raised her own family among the Beng of the Ivory Coast in the 1990s—where cross-nursing is as casual as baby-sitting. “It’s not that every baby is breastfed by every woman,” she told me over the phone. “But if the biological mother isn’t around, any mother who happens to be breastfeeding will feel comfortable picking up the baby. It might be an aunt or cousin or sister, but it might happen to be someone who’s not related. It’s a cliché that it takes a community to raise a child, but they take it literally.” If there are no breastfeeding mothers in the vicinity, even a woman who isn’t lactating can step in. “Any mother who’s around might just give the baby her breast: The sucking mechanism will help the baby calm down even though no milk is coming out—like a pacifier.” Anthropologists have observed cross-nursing in contemporary North Africa, too.

We are, of course, a long way from embracing the idea of cross-nursing. Newspapers and magazines sporadically report on a “rise” of wet nurses in western countries, but these accounts tend to rely on a few anecdotes and seem most interested in gawking. The primary deterrent is understandable incredulity, inflected with the ick factor. A “Good Morning America” host can hardly keep the skepticism out of her voice as she reports on a pair of best friends who “share everything—even what many people consider the most intimate act between a mother and child: breastfeeding.” “The majority of moms,” she hastens to add, “feel uncomfortable—even repulsed—by the idea.” In an article on milk banks, Salon asks, “Isn’t asking another woman to lactate for your child kind of … weird?” The Daily Mail deems it “incredible” that a woman who came upon her friend breastfeeding her child didn’t mind “such an intrusion on the sacred bond between mother and child.” Salma Hayek provoked international uproar when she breastfed a starving baby while on a humanitarian mission to Sierra Leone. In 2003, an Oklahoma woman was charged with “outraging public decency” for breastfeeding a crying baby without the mother’s consent.

And there are sensible reasons for the taboo, as well. Diseases like tuberculosis, HIV, herpes, and syphilis can all be transmitted through breast-feeding. Research has shown that breastfeeding can lessen a woman’s risk of developing ovarian and breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, and osteoporosis—not to mention the benefit of the intense mother-child bonding that many women experience as a result of breastfeeding. Issues of class can’t be ignored, either; wet nurses have traditionally come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and hiring a wet nurse could raise issues similar to those that arise around organ donation (or purchase) or surrogacy.

But ten years ago, eating your own placenta would have been unthinkable. Twenty years ago, only a hippy would give birth at home. Our ideas about how to give birth and raise babies are anything but fixed—and if breast milk is as miraculous as doctors claim, perhaps it’s time to make some milk kin of our own.