Why Are We So Weird About Letting Other Moms Breastfeed Our Babies?

by Madison Young

When my second child was born, my heart cracked open and my breasts did what they needed to do, providing colostrum for my hungry newborn baby. But upon our two-week checkup, my pediatrician told me that my child, Maple, was dropping in weight and we needed to do something about it. I tried to load up on eating foods that my lactation consultant recommended. I drank Mother’s Milk tea and took fists full of fenugreek. I power-pumped and I poured olive oil on everything to increase the healthy fat content of my milk. I ate oatmeal every morning. I even avoided caffeine, since it has been known to lessen milk supply. The pressure was, needless to say, immense. I didn’t know at the time about options for milk-sharing or wet-nursing — allowing another woman to breastfeed my baby.

Stephanie Dahl came to milk-sharing after a baby lost his mother at just a few months old. “A small circle of moms and I donated weekly,” she says, explaining that they were all screened by a midwife with blood tests and an interview. “I gave milk through pumping, but in his first few days after the accident, two moms nursed him directly,” she says. The baby received breast milk for his first year.

And the practice of feeding another woman’s baby isn’t as rare as you might think. Talia Borders, a wet-nursing mother, tells Romper, “I nursed my niece occasionally when my sister was still in class and running late.”

Though people use the term “wet-nursing” interchangeably, wet-nursing specifically refers to when somebody breastfeeds somebody else’s baby, usually for payment. “Cross-nursing” is usually carried out between friends, family, or women in a milk-sharing community when mom is unavailable, giving rise to the term “milk siblings,” for children who nurse together.

The benefits of allowing members of your community to help with feeding your baby are nutritional, but also social, according to those in milk-sharing communities. And wet-nursing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to feeding our babies.

Madison Young used a milk-sharing community to supplement her second child. Photo courtesy of Madison Young.

After exhausting days of parenting, I would walk two miles to a La Leche League meeting, because at least then I wouldn’t be alone in my breastfeeding struggles. At home I felt alone. I felt as if I was drowning, failing over and over again.

I understood this was not my fault, yet I knew I was slipping into a postpartum depression. I knew I was not a failure because of my poor milk supply or my baby not meeting the weight percentiles as designated by my pediatrician, but as Maple’s percentiles continued to drop, I felt that way.

One afternoon at a postpartum meeting, I started to sob. I was so exhausted and every well-meaning suggestion felt like one more thing for me to try and I just didn’t know how much more energy I even had in me to try. My vessel was empty. I was depleted.

As I cried, an unravelled mess in a room full of women who understood, one woman asked me if I had heard of milk-sharing. I hadn’t.

Milk-sharing was different from anything else I had heard of. It was mothers helping mothers. Milk-sharing comes in many different forms, including milk donation, which has risen in visibility and popularity over the past five years. There are a variety of formal and informal networks by which moms who over-produce can donate their milk to mothers in need of milk for their babies. Peer-to-peer (no money exchanged) pumped milk donation has already seen a huge shift socially over the last 10 years, with an uptick in social sharing groups on social media and greater social acceptance.

Wet-nursing might be a very feminist way to share caregiving in a community while giving babies optimal nutrition and solving the 24-hour-on-call burden that many mothers feel so strongly right now.

Moorea Malatt, lactation counselor and educator at Savvy Parenting Support, speaks with Romper about the history of milk-sharing. The practice of wet-nursing and cross-nursing has been keeping babies alive for centuries, allowing some mothers to travel to gather supplies while others stayed to nurse multiple babies, and allowing infants to survive when mothers died.

Laura Isenhart nurses her niece and baby. Photo courtesy of Laura Isenhart.

Today in the U.S., wet-nursing is rare and usually only occurs between friends or as part of a child care arrangement with someone trusted who is willing to feed the baby along with her own. The word "nursing," now used interchangeably with breastfeeding, comes from the history of wet-nursing.

Women cross-nurse, tandem-nurse and wet-nurse for different reasons, including difficulty in pumping or under production of milk, challenges with the baby taking a bottle, or foster or adoptive parents wanting their children to have the experience of breastfeeding.

Malatt tells Romper, “If a baby's mother cannot be with baby all day due to work or hospitalization and will not take a bottle, some families find a caregiver who can wet-nurse. Most commonly this is a family member or close friend or neighbor.”

If a mother won't be able to pump milk or cannot pump enough milk for baby while at work and would otherwise find donor milk for her child, she may also decide to choose a caregiver who can provide fresh milk “from the tap” so to speak.

She goes on to say, “Wet-nursing might be a very feminist way to share caregiving in a community while giving babies optimal nutrition and solving the 24-hour-on-call burden that many mothers feel so strongly right now.” The very burden that had about broken my spirit.

Emily Canibano, a doula and lactation educator, was also a practicing wet-nurse. She says that she was usually referred to mothers when they had difficulty breastfeeding. “In many circumstances I would wet-nurse so moms could have a stress break.” For her, it was meaningful work.

“I felt a connection to all of the children who I was asked to nurse,” she says. “They were hungry and I had an oversupply. I felt it was something I should do.”

Emily Canibano has worked as a wet-nurse. Photo courtesy of Emily Canibano.

For Laura Isenhart, wet-nursing her niece felt like a natural and instinctive practice. “I never felt awkward about it,” she tells me. “I was there for a child who wanted and needed milk and comfort and it was as simple as that.”

Isenhart began babysitting her niece when her sister went back to work. Isenhart was pregnant at the time and after her baby was born and she began lactating, her niece started asking to nurse, too. On occasion, Isenhart still nurses her niece, who is now almost 4 years old.

As someone who still sees her nursling, the act of feeding the child created a bond. “I feel closer to her and more protective than I do of her siblings,” she says “Breastfeeding a child bonds you in a different way.”

Despite the advantages to wet-nursing and cross-nursing, there is still a strong stigma attached to the practice. When Jessica Colletti, a mother in Pennsylvania, shared a photo on Facebook of Colleti cross-nursing her friend’s 18-month-old son alongside her 16-month-old son, a barrage of comments poured in, including comments like, “Don’t breastfeed someone else’s child. That’s just wrong.”

Malatt provides some insight into the core root of this stigma. “We have both a puritan fear of touching others' bodies and especially the parts that have been sexualized," she says, "but we also have a possibly founded fear around bodily fluids and the spread of disease. Both of these fears are very alive and very strong in our culture and create stigma and the 'eww' feeling around wet-nursing.”

When I picked him up she admitted she had fed him. She expected me to be angry, or horrified, but I was just so relieved with her kindness.

Tristen Warner tells me of a time in which a fellow mama nursed her son. I hadn’t been successful pumping. I tried for hours and had three ounces. Another mom was watching my son and she fed him what I pumped but he was still hungry and she acted on instinct and fed him next to her son. When I picked him up she admitted she had fed him. She expected me to be angry, or horrified, but I was just so relieved with her kindness. I reassured her, and we hugged.”

Canibano believes that this nursing stigma is commercially driven, “If we empowered women to nurse their children we would bankrupt a whole industry that is built on formula and "feeding steps".

Isenhart is disheartened and frustrated but feels that change is indeed possible, “We can change it by talking about it and not hiding it. Some people don't mind women nursing in public if they use a cover, or support nursing babies until they’re 1 or 2 years old. We need to normalize all different types of breastfeeding: extended breastfeeding, exclusive pumping, wet-nursing and milk sharing, tandem nursing. If people don't know how common it is, they'll continue to see it as taboo behavior.”

Canibano believes that the societal perception of nursing lies in the hands of celebrities, “Today's society is celebrity and reality TV driven. we need to have more of these people on board and normalizing this natural process.”

This may hold some truth. We have seen a wave of celebrity moms sharing “brelfies” (breast feeding selfies) over the recent years, which have had an impact on societal perceptions of breast feeding and normalizing breastfeeding.

In 2009, actress Salma Hayek sparked a breastfeeding debate when a video of her nursing a baby in Sierra Leone appeared on YouTube. When ABC’s Nightline asked Hayek about the video, she said that she fed the newborn to help promote breastfeeding in a region that has one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the world, due to malnutrition. Hayek’s video and interview was a catalyst for a wave of discussion regarding cross-nursing and milk donation instead of formula.

Salma Hayek cross-nurses an infant in a visit to Sierra Leone in 2009. Screenshot via YouTube.

Aware of the stigma, in a video posted by Sudden Kimpact on YouTube about how a system of cross-nursing, supplementing, and lactation support helped an infant learn to latch (the grateful mother is pictured at the top of this article), the host warned "you're going to see babies nursing!"

Malatt believes that a shift in the medical establishment is required to shift this societal perception of wet-nursing and cross-nursing. “Our culture relies heavily on medical advice around infant care and the current recommendation from medicine is that formula is safer than using donor milk or wet-nursing, though many scientists in the field of human lactation believe otherwise.”

She says that protective measures against the spread of disease are warranted but to remember that the formula industry and the medical industries have tight financial ties. “If we made information more available so that parents can easily become aware of the risks and benefits of all the feeding possibilities — in the same way we are working toward informed consent in so many other areas of mothering — that is how we will change societal perception,” she says.

Parents looking into wet-nursing or milk donation can screen with blood tests, urine tests, or other lab work, and ask about diet and medications.

After posting on a Facebook peer to-peer milk sharing group about my situation, we found a mother able to share her milk. She was a milk donor and had 100 ounces of pumped frozen breast milk stored. I would have gladly welcomed a lactating mama to nurse my baby, but for our particular situation we opted for a donor so that we could supplement with donor milk after I breastfed Maple at each feed. I wished that the abundance of milk in the freezer had all come from me, but it was clear that it was going to take a village to feed my little one.

I took one of the bags of frozen breast milk from our freezer and sat it in cool water to defrost. I nursed Maple, rocking back and forth staring into her eyes in the dim light of the nursery. I settled in to a euphoric hazy fog of love hormones flowing through my body and the heavy sleeplessness of new motherhood.

I turned the bottle warmer on and spoke softly to baby Maple. “Little Maple. Mama loves you. We have a nice gift from another mama. Together we are going to help you to grow big and strong.” Her bottle slowly warmed up and she suckled aggressively at my second breast until she became fussy, still not satiated. I tested the milk on my wrist and brought the bottle to her lips. Maple guzzled down the warmth — all three ounces — and fell peacefully asleep in my arms.

I may not have been able to do it all on my own, but parenthood was never a solo sport. I needed a team, a village and so did my children. For me, milk-sharing was the support that I needed.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.