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Is Wet Nursing a Bad Thing?

Looking for The Lactivist? She's retired. But you CAN still find Jen blogging. These days, she's runs A Flexible Life. Join her for life, recipes, projects and the occasional rant.

Friday, April 27, 2007

It's no secret that wet nursing is the topic du jour these days when it comes to the media and breastfeeding related issues. It's been in Time Magazine, and on The Today Show. I even had a call just yesterday about a radio station that was planning on covering the issue.

In general, my view of wet nursing gets laid down something like this...

1.) It's been around since almost the dawn of time, so long as the wet nurse has been tested for milk-born diseases, it's fine by me.

2.) I do worry about the idea of paying women to be wet nurses, especially if those women have children of their own. My biggest concern is obviously...what happens to the children of the wet nurse? Are they being given formula so that mom can nurse the baby that carries a pay check?

3.) I also worry about the bonding. The nursing relationship creates a powerful physical and emotional bond. I guess I don't see how an infant (and even a child) could separate that bond and really fully understand the difference between a wet nurse and a mother.

Now with that in mind, I've seen two things pop up in the last few days that have caused me to have even more concern about the issue.

The first is from the Foreign Policy blog. The author wonders what will happen if human milk becomes part of a global trade.

...if the for-profit breast-milk industry grows (in 2005, demand for breast milk from one nonprofit association of milk banks grew 28 percent), where will companies get all their milk once altruistic donors run dry? If they follow the model of other American businesses, they might turn to the developing world for their raw material—in this case, breast milk.

It would be expensive to ship frozen milk across continents and oceans, but given that Prolacta last year was marketing milk at $35 per ounce, it's possible that paying low amounts to women in the developing world would make importing a viable business strategy.

Clearly, though, there are a lot of sensitive questions to be debated. Is this exploitation of poor women, or is it giving them income for a body fluid they supposedly can't use anyway?

Yikes. That thought had honestly never occurred to me. I've written about my concern on that level for paid milk banking. I've often worried that if milk banks like Prolacta began purchasing milk that they would then process and sell that you'd run into some serious ethical issues.

For instance, you could have moms pumping and selling their milk while formula feeding their own children. After all, if you could sell your breast milk for a few dollars an ounce, you'd have enough money to pay for anything your baby needed, even formula.

Then I spotted another post on the topic that spun the concerns off into a whole other direction.

Jennifer James over at Black Breastfeeding Blog puts the issue of wet nursing into a historical perspective and sheds some light on a history that I'm sure many of us haven't considered.

Forced wet nursing during slavery and then wet nursing for survival post-Civil War caused untold pain in the black community that still resides with us today. In my opinion, wet nursing is the primary contributor to the low breastfeeding rate among black women in America. When breastfeeding rates are as low as is currently evidenced among black women, babies and families alike suffer. Because breastfeeding produces so many health benefits to children and mothers, when breastfeeding is noticeably absent in such high numbers, black babies aren't as healthy as they could be. Today, this may not have been the case had black mothers been able to nurse their own children throughout American history instead of being forced to work the fields or be house slaves.

On the farther end of the spectrum, wet nursing was yet another factor that kept black women from bonding with their children both during slavery and afterward. Black women so often were nursing white children that their own children were not able to benefit from the healing properties of breast milk and the natural bond between mother and child. These reasons alone make wet nursing one of the worst institutions imposed upon black women.

Now I don't know about the rest of you, but I'll be completely honest and say that I read that and went "oh wow." (And not in the happy way, more in the "holy crap, that's horrible and I can't believe I never realized it!" way.)

Talk about adding a whole other level to the debate...

Here I am talking about my own fear of wet nursing being used to exploit low income women without realizing that the exact history of wet nursing in the United States was closely tied to that very thing. (Though obviously far worse than simply exploiting low income women.)

I wonder, do these posts change the debate for you?

I still don't have a problem with wet nursing per say, since in this day and age one would like to think that someone becomes a wet nurse purely by choice...but it does spark in my mind that creeping bit of doubt that says that there's a fine line between "by choice" and "by necessity" and that it's a line we don't want to see crossed.


  1. Anonymous Alena | 8:34 PM |  

    To me, there are two completely separate issues that sometimes get thrown together. There's wet nursing (your baby actually nursing at another woman's breast), and there's giving your baby someone else's breastmilk from a bottle.

    If I couldn't breastfeed, I would definitely consider buying someone else's breastmilk. But I would NEVER EVER let my baby be nursed by another woman. I have never felt a stronger emotional and physical bond with another human being as I have felt nursing my baby, and I feel that this bond carries over to our relationship. The pure love, comfort, and trust that developes with nursing is so strong. I would NOT want my baby to have this bond with anyone else. And not just for selfish reasons. I think it would be confusing for a baby to develop such a bond with a person other than his mother, with a person that will be gone as soon as breastfeeding is over.

  2. Blogger Jennifer | 8:39 PM |  

    I agree that the issue is very different.

    One (shared milk) simply brings up issues of health and "ick" factor for some people. Neither are those are issues in my mind if you know the person and I have and would share milk directly with another mom.

    Re: cross nursing and wet nursing. Again, I have no issues with it, but for me personally, I'm with you Alena. It's simply too strong of of a physical bond for me to be willing to give it up. Now if it was life or death? (thinking Katrina-like situation and something happened to me...) Then SURE!

    But just because it's more convienent? Nope. Not for me.

  3. Blogger Crystal | 9:45 PM |  

    I would cross nurse for family and close friends, and also accept that if we needed it. I would love to share the bond. Also, I have enough milk for two babies so it would never be a problem there.

    I agree with you on the milk for money issue, though. From what I understand, the milk banks do not pay moms (although some will loan her a pump).

  4. Blogger Leah | 6:11 AM |  

    As with most other things, this issue is firmly in the camp of "If the people agree freely and are not coerced, they should be able to do whatever they want."

    I think it's VERY dangerous to say that doing it by choice is ok, but doing it by necessity is wrong. Basically you're saying that a rich woman getting a side income from wet nursing is ok, but a poor woman feeding her whole family on the income she makes from wet nursing is wrong. And if she feeds her baby formula, it is her business. We all know it's 4th best, but if a woman chooses to support her family in that way, no one should prevent her from doing so. It's like if women say that SAHMs are best, so no one should go to work for a paycheck. Some people NEED a paycheck, and therefore will need to leave their babies with someone else. Some people may be able to get income from wet nursing that they otherwise would have had to get from far worse options such as prostitution.

    No one can make decisions for a your family except for you.

    I think that is why I am FULLY in support of wet nursing. It is also part of why the slavery example is so tragic. That there was a time when women were not allowed to do what is best for their families is tragic.

    But now we are all allowed to make these decisions ourselves, and if someone makes a decision that I personally disagree with? It's not my family. I have no place to tell them what they can and cannot do with their breasts/breastmilk.

  5. Anonymous Jenn | 7:01 AM |  

    I agree that the wet nurse should be tested for diseases that could be transmitted. If I were the wet nurse though, I'd also want to make sure the baby was disease free as well. The risk of transmission of anything would be low, but it would make me more comfortable.

    I don't worry as much about the children of a wet nurse. You can definitely nurse two children. I've been nursing my twins for 9 months, at this point I feel like what's one more?

  6. Blogger Jennifer | 7:10 AM |  


    Just to clarify, it's not that I'm saying that you can't physically produce enough milk for two children at once, it's that you have to be in the immediate proximity of a child to nurse it.

    From my understanding, most wet nurse are live in nannies. If they are allowed to bring their child with them, that's fine with me, but I have to wonder how many employers would allow their nanny to bring their own child to work full time.

    THAT's my concern.

    I base that off reading I've done about the situation in China where for many years, the poor women of the countryside would journey to the city to live as full time wet nurses. They made enough money to support extended families back home, but they were also forced to leave their children in the care of others.

    Sometimes another woman from the village would wet nurse that child, but sometimes it meant subsisting on rice milk or goat milk and hoping that the child would survive to adulthood.

    Imagine the choice of sacrificing one child for the job that would feed the rest of your family.

  7. Blogger Eilat | 4:16 PM |  

    "...if the for-profit breast-milk industry grows (in 2005, demand for breast milk from one nonprofit association of milk banks grew 28 percent), where will companies get all their milk once altruistic donors run dry?"

    If breastfeeding rates in the United States, say, doubled (a wonderful thing in itself!), there would be twice as many eligible (altruistic) donors to milk banks. This would go a long way toward providing milk for the high-need cases of sick babies, as well as adopted babies and babies of mothers who need donated milk for other reasons.

    It seems to me that focusing on this aspect of breastfeeding is the most productive way to solve some of these issues.

  8. Anonymous laura taylor | 10:34 PM |  

    I have been nursing for nine years, through five children of my own. I have also nursed other women's babies for different reasons. One baby was adopted and her mother was unable to provide much breastmilk for her, my son was born 6 days before her and I pumped milk for her and breastfed her whenever we were together. I felt an attachment to her, although I wouldn't say that it approached that of the bond between me and my children. I also breastfed a close friend's baby when she was hospitalized for MS, for two weeks. I kept her 4 month old daughter and her 18 month old daughter at my house with my four children. I nursed the baby whenever she was hungry, I was nursing my youngest at the time who was 15 months old. I have pumped breastmilk for many friends. I have been very lucky to have a very good supply of breastmilk and I wish that when my youngest child was born and was in the NICU I could have donated all of my breatmilk to the hospital. I ended up throwing away all of the milk that I had pumped while he was in there because I insisted that he only nurse, it was more milk than would fit in my freezer.
    I would pump milk or cross-nurse if it were needed.
    I would have another mother nurse my child if I were unable, to me it would be a better alternative than formula.
    I ahve been through so much in nine years of nursing that I could never give breastfeeding my child to anyone else unless it were necessary. Recently I was undergoing a medical procedure and I was faced with the possiblity of having to take medication that was not compatible with breastfeeding(I would have to pump and dump for a short time) as soon as I thought that this might have to happen, I called a very close friend to ask if she would be able to nurse my son. Thankfully I did not have to take the medication but I would have been grateful to have my son comforted by another mother who would understand his needs.

  9. Blogger Thana | 12:09 AM |  

    2.) I do worry about the idea of paying women to be wet nurses, especially if those women have children of their own. My biggest concern is obviously...what happens to the children of the wet nurse? Are they being given formula so that mom can nurse the baby that carries a pay check?

    A co-worker of my husband's was recently left by his wife, abandoning her two month old infant. I tried pumping to help this baby, but the artificial suction harms my breasts. After checking with the infant's pediatrician and my own doctor for health concerns, I breastfeed both my own baby and the two month-old baby. I was worried about whether or not both babies were getting adequate nutrition, so we took both babies to be weighed every three days for two weeks and both babies are gaining weight normally. Breastmilk is produced by demand, the more demand, the more supply so there is no danger of my own baby going hungry or needing formula. I otherwise have no contact with the baby that is not mine, she knows I'm "food" and not play/other comfort. Just call me "bottle". BTW, I receive no payment other than the warm feeling knowing a good job is well done.

  10. Blogger Meghan | 7:50 AM |  

    I hope you guys don't mind me writing in, but I am trying to find people who will talk to me about wet nursing of share feeding. I would LOVE to make a positive TV program on the subject.

    I personally come from a really big family where everyone was breastfed. I know I would have breastfed any of my 16 nieces/nephews if asked - ok, not all 16!

    I understand there's a lot of emotion involved when breastfeeding - actually I don't have kids myself yet! But wouldn't it be great to break down some of the prejudices and make it a healthy subject - of course always giving people the choice to do what they feel is best for their children.

    If there is anyone who would be interested in talking to me about share feeding - please email me.

    I work in London, UK

    Thanks so very much for your thoughts.

    (yes, its my real name - i was a 'just' and married a 'truelove')

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