We have done a lot of talking about wet nurses. We have learned about throughout history there were different reasons for wet nurses and at times it was a matter of need and at other times it was a matter of convenience.
The matter of need is somewhat open for interpretation, as are many things. When I think of need as a modern woman, I think of – If for whatever reason, a mother cannot breastfeed her baby. Whether it is because she has died she is too sick to breastfeed, she has been separated from her baby or she has no milk to provide for her baby. Need to woman centuries ago could have been defined as – She needs to get back to conceiving babies and the act of breastfeeding acts as one form of contraception. Customs are for her to get breeding again as soon as she could. The need also arose from what was expected of her in society, which was to delegate all physical work to others to demonstrate her own and her family’s high status.
We also learned a lot about wet nursing as an industry. There were times when more than half of the babies in different countries were being wet nursed. This created an industry that some felt needed to be regulated and Registries were formed and wet nurses were contracted out. There were families of high class who had the financial means to be picky about the wet nurses they hired and some had a team of wet nurses. They wanted what they felt was perfect and they wanted her to be celibate. And what use to be considered perfect for many centuries were women who were plump, were healthy, cheerful and virtuous. People believed that character was passed through the milk and since redheads were thought to have a bad temper, no redheads allowed. Since sexual intercourse, the semen was thought to have contaminated the milk, wet nurses need to remain celibate. Whatever she did or did not do would come through her milk. This, of course, was quite convenient as it enabled families to blame the wet nurse for faults in their children. And yet, in parts of Africa, they worried that if a woman was not having sex that she would be frustrated and the resulting hysteria would harm the baby. For this, and for other reasons such as other cultures were more realistic about the ability of wet nurses to abstain, there was no taboo on wet nurses having sexual relations. I am again reminded of my running theme throughout this tour of breastfeeding… the more things change, the more things stay the same. At the moment, I am referring to women, mothers, wet nurses being the first person blamed when their child does not turn out right!
Learning of the varying myths that prevailed during ancient times again reminds me of what is going on in current society. There are people who still believe that if a mom is sick with a cold or fever or a breast infection or urinary tract infection or gallbladder disease, that she needs to stop breastfeeding as this will be passed on to her baby. Other popular myths are that if your breasts are small, you will not make enough milk for your baby. You can only eat bland foods otherwise, it will make your baby sick. How about the myth that you cannot breastfeed while pregnant otherwise you will cause a miscarriage. The list goes on. So, as I repel at the thought of some of the most ridiculous myths and superstitions that were common centuries ago, I am reminded of some of the most ridiculous ones I hear regularly, that, in all honestly, I just can’t see anyone paying attention to anymore, but these myths seem to prevail – even when I take time to explain to parents why it makes no common sense.
We also learned that there was a time when wet nurses were paid extremely well. So well, in fact that they were paid far better than their husbands. So much so, that they left their babies to go live with an elite family so she could nurse their baby. The sad result, her baby was wet nursed by someone else who may not have taken such good care of her baby, who may have ignored her baby, may have fed “pap” an inferior food, in later times used bottles that were not properly cleaned and water that was contaminated. All of this led to a very high infant mortality rate. When I read about this, I always think – the insanity of it all. This just does not make sense. To leave your baby with someone else so that you can take care of someone else’s baby? And yet, I do see a similarity with the world we live in now. How many mothers do not want to leave their babies, but out of necessity, take jobs that keep them away from their babies for 10-12 hours a day? For some women, they need to do this as they may just have their salary or find they cannot live on just one salary. For other women, there is not a need, but it is more a matter of want or of convenience. They do not want to stay home with their babies and have this be the only work they do. They want to be out in the world, making money and doing things they enjoy. Again, I don’t think we are much different.
Just like any other profession, there were wet nurses who rose to the top of their profession and were well sought after and paid the highest of wages. They were proud of their skills and confident in their ability to breastfeed easily. Within their communities, they were well respected. Something that we did not talk about yet is how wet nurses bonded with their “charges” they use to call the babies and kids. This has been demonstrated in books and plays. In Romeo and Juliet for instance, Juliet is very close to her wet nurse and is more formal with her own mother. Wet nursed children are known as milk siblings and in some cultures, the families are linked by a special relationship of milk kinship. When children of different families and different communities were fed by the same wet nurse, this also served a dual purpose of bringing together people and communities that were perhaps, otherwise at odds with each other.
There is a fabulous book called: The Politics of Breastfeeding, When breasts are bad for business, by Gabrielle Palmer. I have read many technical books on breastfeeding, I have read many books on breastfeeding challenges and the emotions of breastfeeding, the How to and Why to’s of breastfeeding. I have a few favorites and Gabrielle Palmers book is at the top of my favorites.
I am going to read to you some parts of her book and paraphrasing as I go. There are sentiments that I just could not say any better so why not use her words which say it best. As we close out wet nursing from beginning of time to the 20th century, I want to talk a little bit about the decline of wet nursing.
Due to the major social changes of the Industrial Revolution, younger, unmarried and less experienced women began to become wet nurses and the status of the profession began it’s decline. these ladies were more likely to send their own children out to less caring mothers, who were sometimes called “baby farmer” who were notorious for taking poor care of the babies in their charge and causing many infant deaths. As attitudes toward wet nurses changed, even married and otherwise well respected and prominent wet nurses were viewed with suspicion.
Along with other changes, it is important to understand that wet nursing was popular and accepted way before technology and refrigeration and the move toward modern conveniences were available, so wet nursing was the only viable option for infant feeding. The downfall of wet nursing was not caused by just one thing, however, part of the decline was the mass production of artificial milk which was made possible by automation and machines.
Wet nurses, which use to be viewed as a well respected and well paid profession, and enabled women to be self supporting for many years, saw the demand for their services decline and this meant led to jobs in poorly paid positions or prostitution, which led to the damage of their health and their dignity. Over time, wet nursing went by the wayside and both doctors and commerce paid a key role in this change.
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