Should Wet Nursing be the Solution for Women Who Cannot Do Exclusive Breastfeeding?

Jessica Colletti, a 27-year-old American, nearly broke the Internet in 2015 when she posted a picture of her nursing her friend’s 18-month-old son, Mateo, alongside her 16-month-old son Lucian.

 

For those who have not heard of or do not know the meaning of this concept, a wet nurse is a woman who breastfeeds and cares for another’s child.  While this might seem uncommon, it is a practice that is growing by the day. This is an age long practice which dates back to centuries aimed at keeping babies healthy.

Wet-nursed children may be known as “milk-siblings”.  Mothers who nurse each other’s babies are engaging in a reciprocal act known as cross-nursing or co-nursing.

Don’t think this practice is alien or modern day madness. It has history which dates back ages. In fact, wet nursing was once an organized profession. Evidence of wet nursing is depicted in tomb paintings in ancient Egypt. At the turn of the 20th century, most children were fed human milk, either from their own mother or from a wet nurse. Once a highly organized and well-paid profession, by 1900 wet nurses had all but disappeared. However, the practice seems to be showing up today particularly in the Western world and probably covertly existing in some African societies.

Wet nursing is an age-long practice. This is the painting entitled “The Wet Nurse”,in 1802, by Marguerite Gerard

There is always a reason why wet nursing takes place. So what are the basic reasons why wet nurses are engaged?

Wet nurses are employed when the mother is unable or elects not to nurse her child herself. A wet nurse can be engaged when a baby’s natural mother is unable or decides not to feed the infant. Some women who do not want their breasts to sag early may opt for a wet nurse. A busy working class mum can opt for a wet nurse.

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A woman who is unable to lactate or cannot produce sufficient breast milk could also engage a wet nurse. There are many reasons why a mother is unable to lactate or to produce sufficient breast milk. Reasons include the serious or chronic illness of the mother and her treatment which creates a temporary difficulty to nursing. Additionally, a mother’s taking drugs (prescription or recreational) may necessitate a wet nurse if a drug in any way changes the content of the mother’s milk. There was also an increased need for wet nurses under circumstances when the rates of infant abandonment by mothers, and maternal death during childbirth, were high.

A mother who feels incapable of adequately nursing her child, especially following multiple births can employ a wet nurse.

This may sound wacky but some women choose not to breastfeed for social reasons. Many of these women are found in the upper class. In times past, such women considered breastfeeding unfashionable, in the sense that it not only prevented these women from being able to wear the fashionable clothing of their time but it was also thought to ruin their figures. Such women exist today in the society.

This may be rare but there are women who lack the support of their husbands to breastfeed their children, since hiring a wet nurse was less expensive than having to hire someone else to help run the family business and/or take care of the family household duties in their place. Since a wet nurse comes in handy, such couple get one to take care of their baby.

Some women chose to hire wet nurses purely to escape from the confining and time-consuming chore of breastfeeding.

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Well, no matter the reason, the fact is that some women elect to engage a wet nurse and most times it is not just for the fun of it. The basic aim is to ensure that the baby is breastfed appropriately.

On the other hand, it is possible that those who engage in cross-nursing or co-nursing do so for fun. In this case, the two mothers can breastfeed but they have chosen to breastfeed the other person’s baby. But sometimes the mothers engaged in cross nursing may have cogent reasons for that. For instance, there was a widely reported case in 2015 about two young mums from Connecticut, USA,  who breastfed each other’s children and said they were simply doing what’s best for their families. One of them, Stefani Tatavitto, 23, regularly feeds both her own two-year-old son Gage and her friend Chrystal Klein’s 19-month-old daughter while Klein works at a factory. When Tatavitto goes on a night out, Klein, also 23, returns the favour, nursing both children as if they were her own. Tatavitto, who also had a four-year-old son, Noah, told Huffington Post in an interview: “I don’t think it’s shocking to nurse another woman’s child – breastfeeding is natural.”

Chrystal and Stefani breastfeed their own children
Two young mums who breastfeed each other’s children are encouraging other women to share their milk. The two friends met on Facebook.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Ruaridh Connellan / Barcroft USA

Tatavitto breastfeeds both children in public

 

Health experts are of the view that milk sharing is as long as the nurse is healthy and has been tested for infectious diseases. They insist that breast milk provides growing baby with more nutrients than formula does. Also in 2015, 27-year-old American, Jessica Colletti nearly broke the Internet Saturday when she posted a picture of her nursing her friend’s 18-month-old son, Mateo, alongside her 16-month-old son Lucian.

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There is mixed reaction on the acceptability of wet nursing in the Western world, as shown by studies. A 2015 study among American showed an astonishing 70% of people there don’t think women should breastfeed other people’s kids after seeing a Pennsylvania mom bare her beliefs online, according to a Good Morning America poll. But the reverse is the case in the United Kingdom. Netmums – a website created especially for women with children – have conducted a survey into wet nursing. Surprisingly they found one in 25 British mums are already wet nursing a friend or relative’s baby. The survey revealed two in five people would breastfeed a stranger’s baby, reports Express.co.uk. Two thousands mothers were quizzed on the topic of breastfeeding and wet nursing and a whopping one in seven agreed that wet nursing was the next best thing after breastfeeding your own child. This shows that in some societies in the Western world, wet nursing is gradually coming back to stay.

But wet nursing could have some serious reasons why a woman has to opt for it. While this is a known practice in the Western world, it’s acceptability in the African society is still not widespread. Even in the Western world, it is not a very common practice. But the argument is that instead of not breastfeeding a child at all, is it not better to engage a wet nurse to do the needful in the interest of the baby’s health since this is a safe practice? Culture may not accommodate this practice in Nigeria but if it has benefits and the society is made aware of these benefits, there is a possibility that working class mums, busy mums, and mothers unable to lactate could find a solution which wouldn’t carry a cultural stigma.

So what is your take on wet nursing?

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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