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Wet-nursing

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When a woman breast-feeds someone else’s baby it is called ’wet-nursing’. It was an ancient occupation mentioned in many early medical texts, including those by Aristotle and Ibn Sina. Wet nurses might act as foster parents for motherless babies or those whose mother was simply ill or not able to produce enough milk.

Wet-nursing in Europe increased steadily from the 1000s onwards as urbanisation increased. Country women, usually from farming families, were preferred to town women. Foundling hospitals, which took in abandoned babies, became an increasing source of income for wet nurses. The traditional wet nurse was expected to have a strong body, good milk and to be sympathetic, clean and tidy, active and of good character. She would wet-nurse the infant until it was weaned from breast milk, and might then remain long enough to become the child's nanny. The wet nurse was sometimes considered a member of the family.

Country areas were not immune to plague or to smallpox, and epidemic diseases gradually increased the risks of wet-nursing. By the 1800s British doctors were strongly opposed to wet-nursing on moral and scientific grounds. The practice was still common in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Russia but was opposed by campaigns encouraging women to breast-feed their own children. By the 1940s ‘wet-nursing’ normally meant expressing milk using breast pumps, which went into ‘milk banks’ for premature or sickly babies.

Wet-nursing is still used in some communities where older traditions are still in place, but is no longer widely practised.

 

Related links

Bibliography

V Fildes, Wet Nursing from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988)

G D Susman, Selling Mother’s Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France, 1715-1914 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982)

Glossary:

Plague

An acute contagious fever with high levels of mortality. Both the 'Black Death' that swept Europe in the 1340s and the Great Plague of London in 1665 are believed to have been bubonic plague.

Epidemic

A sudden widespread occurance of an infection with high numbers of people affected.