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Which mother's milk?
August 22, 2012 9:03 AM   Subscribe

While mothers breastfeeding their babies goes in and out of fashion over the ages, so to does another facet of breastfeeding – wet nurses.

Wet nurses have been a fixture of child rearing from ancient times – there are reports that Julius Caeser’s mother Aurelia was considered odd for choosing to breastfeed her own child rather than use a wet nurse (even though good Roman mothers were meant to breastfeed their own children to pass on good attributes in their ‘mothers milk’), and was often used by propertied classes so that women would continue to fall pregnant. But in the last century it has fallen from favour in Western societies, now mainly limited to ‘cross-feeding’ amongst close friends or the occasional celebrity doing what they think is right at the time. When it is discussed now, it usually with distaste, often for feminist reasons, though there are agencies out there who will source a wet nurse for you. And there are a growing number of milk banks.
However wet nursing continues to be the norm in some societies. And not just for humans. There are instances of women choosing to breastfeed non-humans: whether it is monkeys, pigs, or a calf, deer or tigers or dogs or various other animals.
posted by Megami (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought the video celebrity link was going to be all kinds of awful, but instead it turned awefull.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:08 AM on August 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Is it ethical to sell breast milk when there are preemies who need it who you could donate the milk to?
posted by bq at 9:25 AM on August 22, 2012


Is it ethical to sell breast milk when there are preemies who need it who you could donate the milk to?

Is it ethical to sell ANYTHING using this logic?
posted by peep at 9:27 AM on August 22, 2012 [35 favorites]


Years ago I read somewhere that wet nurses in England in earlier times drank a lot of beer because the hops somehow stimulated milk production. This was necessary if they were nursing multiple babies, as some apparently did. The recommendation that parents should not sleep with their babies supposedly comes from this time because those drunken wet nurses were wont to roll over on and smother their wee charges.
posted by mareli at 9:45 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The recommendation that parents should not sleep with their babies supposedly comes from this time because those drunken wet nurses were wont to roll over on and smother their wee charges.

That rings pretty much every possible "urban legend alert" alarm bell to me.
posted by yoink at 9:52 AM on August 22, 2012 [14 favorites]


Breast feeding my two children has been one of my life's most wonderful things....and I've been fortunate enough to have a pretty awesome, fulfilled life. Love this post.... I miss BF...
posted by pearlybob at 9:58 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the first link: Wet nursing has sometimes been used with old or sick people who have trouble taking other nutrition. John Jacob Astor and John D. Rockefeller reportedly hired wet nurses for their own use in their old age.

I'd never heard of this titbit before - I guess it makes sense in a desperate-rich-person-seeks-naturally-rejuvenating-food sort of way. (I have no idea whether it makes any medical sense whatsoever.)

Annoyingly, the source of the information is a dead link.

("Titbit" was an accident. But I left it in!)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:01 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Breast feeding my two children has been one of my life's most wonderful things....

Well that's kind of a given for those who want and are able to do so, but any thoughts on wet nursing?
posted by freya_lamb at 10:02 AM on August 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


I couldn't breastfeed my youngest two because of the medication I was on. If I could have afforded a wet nurse I would have loved to get one. I'd have to really trust the nurse though.
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:10 AM on August 22, 2012


Beer and Oatmeal, in my and my cohort's experiences, are good sources for upping production, as is the herb fenugreek and other prescribed milk stimulants such as domiprodone.

Some women experience an increase in milk production when antibiotics, some a decrease.

I kept my protein intake high and that seemed to help.

Drunkenly smothering babies - urban legend. Looking for cites.

- I had a few friends who could have made great wet nurses (one had something on the order of 200 gallons of frozen milk; boggles my mind that they'd not try to taper off), I can see it still working. But being supportive of nursing in general needs to grow. Hail to Hale and all the other good breastfeeding/meds resources out there! I would not have made it as far as I did without it.
posted by tilde at 10:14 AM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


In a recent thread there was a mefite who told us she'd been breastfed by a wet nurse. I'll see if I can find the comment.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:23 AM on August 22, 2012


That was me, I think.
posted by elizardbits at 10:26 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the first link: Wet nursing has sometimes been used with old or sick people who have trouble taking other nutrition. John Jacob Astor and John D. Rockefeller reportedly hired wet nurses for their own use in their old age.

Old rich guys hire folks so that they can keep sucking tits. Got it.
posted by Melismata at 10:29 AM on August 22, 2012


Still shaking my head at what @tilde said about 200 gallons of frozen milk. Oi.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2012


On a not-rich note, there's always Rose-of-Sharon breastfeeding the dying old man at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. I know, fiction, but still.

I joke that I would have made a fabulous wet nurse. I've been lucky to easily nurse all three of my kids - still nursing the youngest. I've always said that I'd happily help someone who needed someone to nurse their child (I hate pumping with a passion, and never get as much with a pump as a baby is able to get). During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when there were babies going hungry for lack of water to mix formula, I wept because I was nursing my daughter at the time and wished I could help those babies as easily as I fed her.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 10:41 AM on August 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Humans are one of only three species known to experience menopause rather than remaining fertile up until near the end of their lifespan, the others being killer whales and pilot whales, and orca have been observed to continue nursing calves for most of a decade into their menopause, so I've been wondering whether menopause in humans might not have served to produce a corps of ready and willing wet nurses-- which could have been all the more critical as our rapidly expanded brains raised the level of maternal mortality at birth.

Perhaps the venuses of Willendorf and Dolní Věstonice could be seen as celebrations of a cadre of nurses as well as simple primary fertility.
...wet nurses in England in earlier times drank a lot of beer because the hops somehow stimulated milk production. This was necessary if they were nursing multiple babies, as some apparently did. The recommendation that parents should not sleep with their babies supposedly comes from this time because those drunken wet nurses were wont to roll over on and smother their wee charges.
That's fascinating, mareli. I read a study some time ago suggesting that English officials in the 18th century often gave 'smothered in sleep' as a cause of death for the babies of poor women when everyone knew, or thought they knew, that the babies were killed because families were too poor to feed them, and no one was willing to admit it publicly because of the harsh light that wold have cast on the social policies of the day.
posted by jamjam at 10:47 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


On the "old guys being breastfed" front there's also Pero and Cimon a fairly common theme in western art based on a Roman myth. Pero breastfeeds her aged father Cimon in secret after he has been condemned to death by starvation. It is part of what feeds into the long iconographic tradition of charity (or caritas) represented as a woman shooting milk from her breasts. This, in turn, leads to one of the odder turns in Christian iconography, the story of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who is represented having milk shot into his mouth by the Virgin Mary.
posted by yoink at 10:52 AM on August 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


Random Mary Todd Lincoln factoid: She breastfed a neighbor's infant shortly after Tad was born, when the neighbor fell ill and was unable to feed the baby.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:30 AM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Until the research finishes panning out, I can see more, um, determined auto-immune disorder patients finding sources for freshly lactated human milk from wet nurses. I mean, breast feeding parents use it for ear infections and pink eye anyway ... (i can only find anecdotal links, sorry - either DDG is broken or I have the stupid).

If a wet nurse is someone who nurses directly to a person not of her own offspring, what would one who just pumps be?

And yeah, really. 200 gallons. The mind boggles at how many pre-cooked meals I could have made up for that kind of freezer space. Or bought half a cow or something! On the other hand, I also remember the hormone-frenzy I was in, fighting for every ounce.
posted by tilde at 11:44 AM on August 22, 2012


Its complicated - I'm among those who seem to lactate just at the sight of a hungry baby. But I certainly don't feel I can commit to feeding someone for 6 months. And what about the baby's relation to its mother?
Another question is what is does to my body. My breasts have outgrown me. I'd need to really love a child to take on more growth.
In the old days these questions were overruled by issues of survival, in several dimensions. But today, it seems to me to be a purely æsthetic question, for the very rich.
posted by mumimor at 12:17 PM on August 22, 2012


I have read articles about extremely immuno-compromised adults getting donor milk from milk banks (I'm at work, don't have time to google for the articles sorry). I can definitely believe it might be beneficial, although I don't know how much.

I donated milk to a local mother who had an adopted infant, but not by directly wet nursing, just passing on pumped milk. Wet-nurse-by-proxy? I greatly enjoyed being able to help someone out in this way.

A friend of mine had enormous difficulty breastfeeding her child, and she bought some milk from the milk bank. It was tremendously expensive. I have mixed feelings about this. I understand that it costs money to process, store, pasteurise and manage the milk, but it feels slightly weird that the donor mothers get nothing, and the recipients pay an enormous amount of money for it. Sort of logically makes sense but feels ethically weird.
posted by Joh at 12:28 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I made so much more milk with my son (second baby) than I did my daughter (first baby). It makes me wonder if many wet nurses weren't just moms many times over who found it easy to continue lactating abundantly even after their youngest was done with the boob.

It would take some doing to get me lactating again, but I've thought about doing it for purely cosmetic reasons. They looked great. But pumping is a giant pain. I'd much rather be a part time wet nurse than pump. One of say, a roster of four women nursing a single infant. Less of a commitment, probably even better for the baby because of all the different immune systems impacting his, and those nice perky firm boobs back.
posted by Athene at 12:32 PM on August 22, 2012


Drunkenly smothering babies - urban legend.

Seems like this would go in the "probably true, unverified" category.
posted by yohko at 12:42 PM on August 22, 2012


I too could easily have been a wet-nurse. Both my children had plenty.
I did personally know a lady who occasionally had been a wet-nurse. She liked doing that.
I would only have someone do it if I had absolute certainty the wet-nurse was free of diseases, such as TB, HIV/AIDS, Hep C, and free of risk factors for those conditions.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:46 PM on August 22, 2012


It would take some doing to get me lactating again, but I've thought about doing it for purely cosmetic reasons.

Is this commonly done? Are there any negative (or indeed, positive) health impacts due to prolonged high hormone levels in the lactating woman's body?
posted by samofidelis at 12:52 PM on August 22, 2012


Oh, Milk-siblings are still a thing among Muslims. It's part of why preemies are fed camel-milk in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to human milk.
In most camel-raising cultures, camel milk is regarded as being as good as, if not better than human milk for sickly or premature infants.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:59 PM on August 22, 2012


Interesting. True?
posted by bq at 1:12 PM on August 22, 2012


Also, allow me to rephrase me earlier question:

Would it be ethical for me to sell breast milk, if I don't technically need the money, instead of donating it to preemies?
posted by bq at 1:13 PM on August 22, 2012


I never quite quit lactating. I am 59, sometimes a crying baby sets off the let-down reflex, and I get leakage.
I look a good bit younger than my actual age. I suspect that the hormonal consequences aren't awful.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:17 PM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Remember when nursing that cigarettes must be restricted to three a day.

Those were the actual instructions sent home with my brother in-law when he was born in 1978.
posted by autopilot at 1:47 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


To answer freya_lamb's question...I think giving any kind of sustenance to a child in need is a wonderful thing... I had so much milk with my daughter....I wish I had been more knowledgeable about the subject at the time to donate. I hope there are more milk banks and education in the coming years and people realize that is an option....
posted by pearlybob at 1:58 PM on August 22, 2012


Once my daughter worked out how to feed properly I went from low supply to high and had a bunch in the freezer. I donated some of it to a couple of babies around the place. In one case I was donating to a friend to supplement since her milk was being donated to a premmie with dairy and soy intolerances (since my friend was herself dairy and soy free). In the other it was for low supply.

I would have cross-nursed without a qualm, and my mother had set up an agreement with a friend about cross-nursing while babysitting but it never came up since they were both attachment parent types and ended up not needing babysitters until we were well past needing breastmilk rather than solids/water/other forms of comfort.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:37 PM on August 22, 2012


Huh, I thought tilde's link would be about antibodies, especially IgA type in human milk rather than a few speculative avenues of research.
posted by porpoise at 10:55 PM on August 22, 2012


Drunkenly smothering babies - urban legend.

Seems like this would go in the "probably true, unverified" category.


I'm sure it has happened at least *once* in the history of the world, but I can't imagine it being all that common.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:15 PM on August 22, 2012


Drunkenly smothering babies - urban legend.

Seems like this would go in the "probably true, unverified" category.


As endlessly discussed on alt.folklore.urban back in the day, the question about an urban legend isn't "could this have happened" -- many, many of them could -- but about why the story is told, particularly in the way that it is.

Infant suffocation does have some relationship to bed-sharing/co-sleeping, although this is sometimes exaggerated as a cause. It's likely that drunkenness could increase that risk, but this doesn't seem to have been studied (limited data in any case). In actuality it appears one of the culprits is simply Western bed and crib design (with a separate mattress and, often, some hard material elements to hold the mattress in place). But presumably, alcohol or other factors aside, parents co-sleeping with their own babies would have a virtually identical risk as to wet nurses doing it with someone else's.

The urban legend factor here, then, is blaming a universal problem on a power-deficient group, to wit, wet nurses in the servant class. Even if we assume that the practice was common, it would only be for wealthy and powerful families who can afford servants -- not very many people. So even if we draw some conclusions about co-sleeping deaths, the wet nurse is likely to only be responsible in perhaps 1% to 5% of such deaths, as the remainder of the population is co-sleeping with their own infants and having a similar rate of accidental deaths.

But literacy and access to other forms of social communication being what they are, this isn't going to figure into an urban legend. History and ULs are often written by the winners.
posted by dhartung at 11:48 PM on August 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can't say authoritatively that it never happened that wet nurses slept with their charges. I can say that in all the reading I've done of primary sources in eras where wet nurses were commonly used in England, the families paying the wet nurses did not have the wet nurses cosleeping with the baby. In addition, beer was commonly recommended as a drink for nursing women, even on top of the fact water was unsafe for most of the period I'm familiar with so people were drinking beer anyway.

Now, my familiarity with the history is much less before 1600, but until someone can show me a source I'm going with urban legend.
posted by winna at 5:31 AM on August 23, 2012


Thanks, porpoise. I did read other things similar to that, and some about gut types and how the guts of people change in pregnancy and by being breast fed; I don't know if I have the article you've linked, thanks.

I'm extremely excited about the direction these gut researches are going, given my family history of gut issues. No UC or Celiac just oddities that come and go.

/end tangent
posted by tilde at 7:39 AM on August 23, 2012


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