103 Part 1 Infant Feeding and Wet Nursing: I am going to take you on a little tour…… the world of breastfeeding from many moons ago to the current state of breastfeeding. I will save all the references I used and put this in the show notes at the end of this whole series in Week 12. I love learning about the history of infant feeding practices partly because it gives us a window into society during years that we did not live through and we get to see what the breastfeeding culture was like. back in the day… like thousands of years ago. It might surprise some to learn that years ago, not all mothers wanted to breastfeed, or could breastfeed their babies. On todays show, we learn the definition of wet nursing and we discuss why some mothers might choose to have their baby fed by another mother.
I am going to take you on a little tour…… the world of breastfeeding from many moons ago to the current state of breastfeeding. I will save all the references I used and put this in the show notes at the end of this whole series in Week 12. I love learning about the history of infant feeding practices partly because it gives us a window into society during years that we did not live through and we get to see what the breastfeeding culture was like. back in the day… like thousands of years ago. It might surprise some to learn that years ago, not all mothers wanted to breastfeed, or could breastfeed their babies.
Let’s first talk about infant feeding before the 20th century. Most humans who have walked this earth, never drank a drop of non-human milk. Let’s just stop for a second and contemplate that thought. It is only in this last century that humans regular drink milk from another species. Keeping animals and drinking their milk is a very new practice in human history and it probably evolved alongside agriculture evolution and – societies which keep milch animals – such as cows, camels, yaks, sheep or goats. Their knowledge and observation of how important colostrum and early suckling is for the survival of their animals makes them value own-species feeding.
There is so much to talk about. I want to start by talking about infant feeding practices before formula came into the picture. The 3 common feeding practices was for a mom to Breastfeed her own baby or utilize the services of a wet nurse or practice cross nursing. There is also the combination of all 3 practices. These were all common for thousands of years with certain practices coming in and out of favor.
Let’s start off by talking about the definition of wet nursing.
For millions of years, human infants have been nurtured and nourished predominantly by human milk -either directly from the baby’s mother or by the milk of another woman. Some have made a concious decision to feed their baby themselves or employ wet nurses. The reasons are not many, however, have changed as the years and human behavior and culture and family structure has changed. Add to that various changes in health practices, modern medicine, refrigeration and believe it or not, changes in womans fashions also had an impact on breastfeeding, milk supply and wet nursing. We will get to that in a few minutes.
For thousands of years wet nursing was a valued profession.
Use of a wet nurse, which by definition is “a woman who breastfeeds another’s child” was a common practice before the introduction of the feeding bottle and formula. The history of wet nursing is fascinating. It became a well organized profession with contracts and laws designed to regulate its practice. “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.”
In past centuries, the majority of royal babies were handed to a wet nurse soon after their arrival. Royal women were often little more than symbolic figures, delivering child after child to secure a dynasty. This was particularly important in times of high infant and child mortality, when the production of second, third and fourth sons were crucial. Breastfeeding offers a degree of contraceptive protection, so with their babies being fed by others, Queens were free to resume their duties and begin the process of conceiving the next heir. . Often, the royal household would contain a team of lactating women, to ensure the new arrival could be fed on demand.
There are records from ancient Babylon that show rules and laws and payments and working conditions for wet nursing practice. It was a common way to feed babies all over the world for many years and while it declined dramatically it never completely died out.
I could literally write a whole book on wet nursing alone. Different eras and different regions have their own history surrounding wet nursing.
Their are some common reasons for wet nursing. For some mothers, breastfeeding was not always possible. Perhaps there was the mother who was just not able to make milk or enough milk for her baby. There were mothers who died in childbirth. Modern day science and moms think that this is a new phenomenom, however, there is quite a bit written about lactation failure in the earliest medical encyclopedia, which talks about lactation failure and remedies for woman to get a supply going or increase their supply have been written about. These early writings suggest that lactation failure was a problem during ancient Egyptian times and that wet nursing was a common alternative feeding method. Interestingly enough, before most recent of times, public breastfeeding was a non-issue, so this was never a reason for a woman to not breastfeed her baby. In modern times, this is frequently a reason cited reason to not breastfeed.
In addition, there have been times during history when mothers decided that they did not want to nurse their babies. These were women of higher social status and they hired wet nurses even when they were capable of feeding their babies. It hurts me to even read and talk about this, however, modern society seems to think awful things about mothers who abandon their babies, leave them alone in a garbage pail or elsewhere to die. While this is awful, it is not something that has only happened in recent years. Many newborns, for a variety of reasons, were abandoned and left to die. Wet nurses were hired by slave owners who took these abandoned infants in and fed them for future use as slaves. There is much written about babies being breastfed for 3 years and up.
There were times such as during the Renaissance period, that quite a handsome fee was paid to wet nurses, so much so that they were d oing this at the expense of their own babies. Laws were put into effect to ensure that mothers were taking care and feeding their own babies before they would be for hire to feed another baby. Laws and societal beliefs and practices all played a part in how babies were fed. Throughout, the need for the mother to breastfed her own baby was encouraged, however, wet nursing continued to be a highly paid profession and artificial feeding from bottles began to slowly affect the need for wet nurses. By 1900, the wet nursing as a profession had faded out.
Just like there are “old wives tales” in modern times, I believe there were many myths and “old wives tales” years ago having to do with breastfeeding and milk production and the quality of milk. I found in some of my readings, a section where they wrote about the fact that there was a criteria for wet nurses.
There was a test for assessing the quality and consistency of breastmlk. When a drop of breastmilk was placed on a fingernail and the finger moved, the milk was not suppose to be so watery that it ran all over the surface of the nail. When the fingernail was turned downward, the milk was not to be thick enough to cling to the nail. It was felt that the best would be the milk that the consistency ranged between the two extremes.
I can’t help but wonder about this assessment. I imagine that the results of this fingernail test, done on the same mother, at different times of the day, and at different times between nursings, would have given quite a different picture of the quality of a mothers milk. Since we know that mothers milk changes from beginning to end of the feeding, and during the feeding and between feedings, and that there are times of higher fat content and lower fat content and times when the milk will be more watery than other times, I imagine this test was far from accurate. I also suspect that knowing this about this ever changing fluid, there were probably times when a woman was happy to have her milk tested with this fingernail test and other parts of the day when she refused or made an excuse to have her milk tested. After all, for wet nurses, this was their livelihood and I imagine they were all about protecting their cash flow.
You are learning that there are times in history when the need for the mother to breastfeed her own baby was encouraged and other times discouraged as she fed other womans babies to make money, which unfortunately put her own babies at risk.
One of the most legendary breastfeeders of the 18th century was Judith Waterford, a Victorian woman who was still making milk in her eighties!
Judith was celebrated across Britain for her age and ability to lactate luxuriously. At that time, she could still squeeze fresh milk out of her left breast that was “nice” and “sweet,”—not all that different from young moms’ milk. A Dr. Kennedy examined her and reported in a medical journal that “she had a moderate but regular secretion of milk” at this age.
Married at twenty-two, Judith made a career was a wet nurse for the next fifty years – apparently, this lady had never heard of retirement. The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal noted in 1842, “Judith Waterford … suckled uninterruptedly for forty-seven years.” When she was at her peak, she could produce four pints’ worth of milk a day! That’s eight cups’ worth of milk! And her job put her in touch with upper-class families, as she nursed their babies.
By her 81st birthday in 1831, Judith was still nursing her professional career. She ended up lamenting that she could only produce enough milk for one kid. Luckily for her, her cash flow—and milk—never dried up completely
This subject of wet nursing is so fascinating. Join us next week on Wednesday as we talk in even more detail about wet nursing in various parts of the world and why wet nursing went in and out of favor and what societal changes were occurring that brought about the decline in wet nursing until the early 1900s when the profession of wet nursing really began to fade. – but again, has never fully gone away. We will also get into a good discussion about cross nursing.
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