At its most basic, a wet nurse is a women who breastfeeds a baby that’s not her own. However, the term has implications far beyond that most basic relationship — one that presumably arose naturally in human history as a way of ensuring the survival of infants whose mothers could not breastfeed or had died in childbirth. So, historically speaking, what was the role of the wet nurse in society? And are wet nurses still a thing, or has the profession disappeared with the emergence of other, easier ways to feed babies that cannot be breastfed by their mothers?
What is a wet nurse?
The meaning of the term “wet nurse” is not as simple as it may seem on the surface, though. The role of wet nurses in society carries a rich and complex history. Even dictionary definitions of the term indicate a lot of variance and a spectrum of meaning. For example, Merriam Webster first defines the meaning of “wet nurse” as “to care for and breastfeed (another woman's baby)”. Interestingly, they offer a second definition as well; “to give constant and often excessive care to.” Meanwhile, the Cambridge Dictionary defines “wet nurse” within a purely historical context; “in the past, a woman employed to give her breast milk to another woman's baby.”
The history of wet nursing
Although social norms and cultural expectations played into the use of wet nurses, the practice of a lactating woman feeding another woman’s baby is age-old and has, historically, been a life-saving practice for some infants. As such, wet nursing is a practice that can be traced back to ancient times, and there is abundant evidence that wet nurses were particularly used by wealthy nobility ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, as noted in the paper “A History of Infant Feeding”, published in The Journal of Perinatal Education. The paper goes on to paint a board picture of the fact that wet nurses have been with us throughout history; “Wet nursing began as early as 2000 BC and extended until the 20th century. Throughout this time period, wet nursing evolved from an alternative of need (2000 BC) to an alternative of choice (950 BC to 1800 AD). It became a well organized profession with contracts and laws designed to regulate its practice.”
Wet nurses in the middle ages
Despite its ancient roots, many of us perhaps most closely associate the term “wet nurse” with the Middle Ages, and indeed the use of wet nurses was particularly widespread in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance in western Europe. “The profession of wet-nursing re-emerged as desirable in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries when noble and upper-class women hired wet nurses to feed their infants. Wet nurses subsequently became highly respected, well paid and received both food and lodging for their services,” notes a 2016 paper entitled “From royal wet nurses to Facebook: The evolution of breastmilk sharing” published in the Breastfeeding Review.
Though the actual practice of nursing another woman’s baby was surely still in use, the use of wet nurses as a social status signifier began to fall out of fashion in the 17th century, explains Renaissance scholar Margaret L. King in a 2007 article published in Renaissance Quarterly. “During the seventeenth century in England and New England, mothers of the upper strata led the way to a modern ideology of maternal nursing. By the nineteenth century, as George Sussman has shown for modern France (Selling Mother’s Milk, 1982), it was not women of the elite, but of the poor, who outsourced the job of infant feeding.”
Throughout history, wet nurses have often been subject to exploitation, be it as enslaved people or low-wage employees. And the history of wet nurses in America is particularly fraught. “As a form of exploitation specific to slave mothers, enforced wet-nursing constituted a distinct aspect of enslaved women’s commodification,” wrote Emily West and R. J. Knight in Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South. They explained that “white women used wet-nursing as a tool to manipulate enslaved women’s motherhood for slaveholders’ own ends.”
Are wet nurses still a thing?
Wet nurses are not what they once were, but yes, wet nurses still exist, says Kristin Gourley, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), and they can be found right here in America.
“Wet nurses still exist but not many people talk about it and when it does happen, it's much less of a paid position like it was centuries ago,” Gourley says. Today, wet nursing (or cross nursing, as it’s more commonly called) is a much more casual affair.
It’s “much more a friend breastfeeding her friend's baby while her friend has to work, for example,” Gourley explains.
Today wet nursing has evolved once again. “For those who need breastmilk for their baby long-term or in larger amounts, informal milk sharing is much more common,” Gourley tells Romper. “It's not generally an encouraged or discouraged thing in the lactation community. As always, it's important to be sure that the person nursing your baby doesn't have any breastfeeding-communicable diseases such as HIV.”
"I will say that more commonly people share milk by pumping," Leigh Anne O'Connor, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, tells Romper. "In my experience the people who nurse other peoples' babies directly are typically friends and family. If you know the person and know they are generally healthy, then it is great!"
Human milk is designed for human babies, explains O’Connor, and so it's totally appropriate to share. But the business behind hiring wet nurses is murky, and O'Connor cautions women to tread carefully. "I would want to make sure that the person has a baby and has a clean bill of health," she says. "If someone is looking for milk for their baby and they do not have a trusted friend who can be their wet nurse, I recommend they source from an accredited human milk bank."
The good news is, human milk banks are become more and more prevalent. To learn more about these services, O'Connor recommends women visit one of the following sites:
- Human Milk Banking Association of North America
- The New York Milk Bank – Give. Nourish. Thrive.
- Donor Breast Milk • Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast
Kristin Gourley, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant
Leigh Anne O'Connor, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant
King, Margaret L. (2007). Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might. Renaissance Quarterly, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1353/ren.2007.0147
Stevens EE, Patrick TE, Pickler R. (2009) A history of infant feeding. The Journal of Perinatal Education, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684040/
Baumgartel K.L., Sneeringer L., Cohen S.M. (2016). From royal wet nurses to Facebook: The evolution of breastmilk sharing. Breastfeed Rev, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603296/
West, E., & Knight, R.J. (2017). Mothers’ Milk: Slavery, Wet-Nursing, and Black and White Women in the Antebellum South. Journal of Southern History, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/647289
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