What is wet-nursing baby?

What is the Definition of Wet-Nursing?

Wet-nursing is the practice of a woman breastfeeding and caring for another’s child. Historically, wet nurses were employed when the biological mother was unable or chose not to nurse her own infant. Today, wet-nursing is rare in developed countries, but still practiced in some developing nations when a mother cannot or will not feed her own child.

The woman who breastfeeds another’s child is called a wet nurse. A wet nurse can help provide nutrition and immunological protection to the child if the biological mother is unable to breastfeed.

What are the Reasons for Wet-Nursing Throughout History?

Throughout history, infants were wet-nursed for a variety of reasons:

– The mother died during childbirth. Wet-nursing was necessary for the infant’s survival.

– The mother was ill after birth and unable to produce enough milk. A wet nurse could feed the baby until the mother recovered.

– Among royal families, aristocrats, and upper classes, it was customary to employ wet nurses so the mother did not have to interrupt her social life to breastfeed.

– Poor families might have a woman wet-nurse a wealthy family’s infant for pay, as a source of income.

– Enslaved women were forced to wet-nurse their master’s children in addition to their own.

– Abandoned children and orphans would be sent to live with a wet nurse if no alternate caregiver was available.

So while wet-nursing occurred for medical reasons, it was also a luxury for the rich, a source of income for the poor, and a duty for enslaved women throughout history.

When Did the Practice of Wet-Nursing Begin?

The practice of one woman breastfeeding another’s child is an ancient one. Images of wet nurses have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 2000 BC. Wet nurses are mentioned in the Bible’s Old Testament. Greeks and Romans utilized wet nurses, as did families in China, India and other ancient cultures.

In Europe during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period, upper class families routinely hired wet nurses. It was seen as healthier for both mother and baby than having the mother breastfeed, and this allowed the mother to conceive again sooner. The Catholic Church encouraged wet-nursing for orphaned or abandoned infants.

Wet-nursing continued to be common through the 19th century. With high infant mortality rates, a family might take in an orphan as a “nurse child” to be breastfed by a wet nurse. But as formula was created and pasteurization allowed for safe use of cow’s milk, the need for wet nurses diminished in industrialized nations.

What Qualities Were Desired in a Wet Nurse?

When families hired a wet nurse, they looked for certain qualities, believing these attributes made the milk more nutritious:

– Age – Preferred in their late twenties or early thirties, as mature milk was considered better. Younger women were thought to produce thin, watery milk.

– Appearance – Wet nurses were expected to have a ruddy complexion and plump figure, signifying health. Pale, thin women were avoided.

– Diet – Wet nurses were fed diets rich in meat, broth, eggs and wine, thought to improve milk quality.

– Disposition – Quiet, calm demeanors were valued so as not to transmit temperamental qualities through the milk.

– Marital status – Preference for married wet nurses who had successfully reared their own children.

– Morals – Good character with no vices, nor too much excitement, that could taint the milk.

– Breasts – Large, firm breasts with big nipples were ideal for wet-nursing.

So families hiring a wet nurse focused less on emotional bonds and more on physical health they believed was connected to nutritious milk.

What is the Islamic View on Wet-Nursing?

In the Islamic tradition, the Quran specifies that infants should be breastfed for two full years by their mother or a wet nurse. Islamic law allowed wet-nursing to create familial relations between biological and foster families. If a woman breastfed a child during the first two years of life, the child was considered “milk kin”, leading to prohibitions on marriage between the two as adults. This created familial bonds between biological and foster families.

The milk kinship created by wet-nursing had legal implications in Islamic law regarding marriage and inheritance. A man and a milk kin woman were forbidden to marry. The relatives of a milk mother also took on familial terms – her husband was the child’s milk father, her biological children the child’s milk siblings. So wet-nursing facilitated integration into a foster family.

What are Milk Banks?

Milk banks are organizations that collect, screen, process and dispense donated human breastmilk on a non-profit basis. Donor milk from the banks provides nourishment for babies whose mothers are unable to produce enough milk.

Milk banks follow guidelines from the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). Donated milk is pasteurized to eradicate potential infectious diseases while preserving nutritional and immunological components. The donors are rigorously screened for good health, lifestyle and diet. The milk is tested, pooled, processed and distributed to hospitals and families in need.

The first modern milk bank was established in Vienna in 1909, followed by cities in Germany, England, France, Australia and the United States. Today there are over 705 milk banks globally in over 52 countries providing donor milk for infants in neonatal intensive care units when mother’s own milk is unavailable.

What Potential Risks are there with Wet-Nursing?

While wet-nursing can provide breastmilk for an infant whose mother cannot nurse, there are some potential risks:

– Disease transmission – A wet nurse could unknowingly transmit an infection to the infant through her breastmilk. Screening methods today help eliminate this risk.

– Overfeeding – A wet nurse may overfeed an infant, leading to excessive weight gain and associated health issues.

– Bonding – The infant may not properly bond with its biological mother due to the constant presence of the wet nurse.

– Nutrition – Breastmilk can vary in nutritional content. Milk from a different mother may not contain ideal nutrition for every specific infant.

– Contaminants – Environmental contaminants, medicines or illegal drugs in the wet nurse’s system could be transmitted through the breastmilk. Precautions should be taken.

– Ethics – Historically, poorer women or enslaved women were forced into wet-nursing. Ethically, wet nurses should be screened and compensated fairly for their milk and time if they choose to donate or be employed as a wet nurse.

So while wet nursing can be beneficial, precautions should be taken to make it a safe, ethical practice for modern times. Careful screening and oversight can help minimize risks.

What are Some Notable Examples of Wet-Nursing Throughout History?

– Cleopatra was wet-nursed in ancient Egypt, as was Tutankhamun and other royal offspring. Wet nurses were paid homage alongside royal mothers.

– William Shakespeare is believed to have been wet-nursed by a woman named Joan Hart after his mother, Mary Arden, fell ill following his birth.

– Marie Antoinette was nursed by a peasant foster mother for the first three years of life before returning to her aristocratic parents, as was custom.

– Both Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip were wet-nursed during infancy by appointed royal wet nurses.

– Some US presidents had children wet-nursed, including Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and James Garfield.

– Leo Tolstoy’s mother died when he was 2, so he was sent to live and nurse with the wet nurse family of his sister.

– Farm collective wet nurses nourished infants while mothers worked in the Soviet Union throughout much of the 20th century.

So wet-nursing facilitated survival and success for many historic figures across diverse cultures.

What led to the Decline of Wet-Nursing?

Several developments led to the decline of wet-nursing after centuries as a normal practice:

– **Improvements in formula** – In the 19th century,Liebig’s infant formula and later commercial formulas provided alternatives to breastmilk, making wet-nursing less crucial.

– **Pasteurization** – The ability to pasteurize cow’s milk and make it safe for infants reduced the risks of bottle-feeding.

– **Refrigeration** – Refrigerating milk allowed safe storage and transport of expressed breastmilk and cow’s milk. Wet-nurses were no longer the only means of feeding in the mother’s absence.

– **Changing attitudes** – Increasingly, society expected mothers to feed their own children as attitudes shifted.

– **Medical advances** – Improved obstetric and neonatal care reduced infant mortality and need for emergency wet-nurses.

– **Fear of disease** – Cases of syphilis transmitted through breastmilk made families more wary of using unknown wet nurses.

So while it had once been common practice for centuries, wet-nursing declined thanks to medical, technological and social changes that made it less crucial for infant survival.

What are the Pros of Wet-Nursing?

There are some potential benefits to wet-nursing when done properly:

– Provides breastmilk – The infant receives optimal nutrition, antibodies and health benefits from human breastmilk.

– Allows mother to work – Mother can resume work or other activities while the wet nurse feeds her infant.

– Supplements mother’s milk – A wet nurse can supplement feedings if a mother cannot produce enough milk for her child.

– Prevents malnutrition – Wet-nursing historically prevented malnutrition in orphans, abandoned children, or when mothers were ill or deceased.

– Income source – Providing breastmilk can be a source of income for lactating women in dire financial situations.

– Promotes bonding – The wet nurse bonds closely with the infant through the act of nursing and caring for the child.

– Adheres to religious doctrine – Wet-nursing has allowed followers of Islam to meet the Quran’s directive to breastfeed for two years.

So when done ethically, wet-nursing provides nourishment for infants while allowing mothers autonomy and recuperation after birth.

What are the Cons of Wet-Nursing?

There are also some potential risks and downsides to wet-nursing:

– Disease transmission – Breastmilk could transmit HIV, hepatitis or other illnesses without proper screening.

– Bonding conflicts – The infant may bond more strongly with the wet nurse than its mother early in life.

– Diminished milk supply – Relying on a wet nurse can diminish the mother’s own milk production.

– Contaminants – The wet nurse’s diet or environmental exposures could pass contaminants to the baby.

– Malnutrition – Milk composition varies; the wet nurse’s milk may not contain nutrients perfectly suited to the infant.

– Exploitation – Historically, wet nurses were exploited and forced into service due to poverty, lack of rights or enslavement.

– Psychological impact – Postpartum mothers may feel shame, grief or jealousy seeing another woman nurse their child.

– Prohibitive cost – Hiring a wet nurse can be prohibitively expensive for many families.

So while wet-nursing has benefits, there are risks involved that require careful consideration. Regulations and practices should ensure ethical treatment of all parties.

What are Some Common Modern Alternatives to Wet Nurses?

In the modern era, there are several suitable alternatives to wet-nursing an infant when the mother cannot or chooses not to breastfeed:

– **Donor breastmilk** – Milk banks screen donors and provide pasteurized donor milk for hospitalized infants and outpatients.

– **Breast pumps** – Allow mothers to express and store their milk for later use so others can feed the expressed milk.

– **Formula** – Commercial infant formulas attempt to mimic the nutritional profile of breastmilk.

– **Supplementary nursing systems** – Devices that allow non-lactating parents to deliver breastmilk while nursing via tubes and reservoirs.

– **Cross-nursing** – One woman nurses the biological infant of another, often a friend, as a direct exchange rather than using a paid wet nurse.

– **Milk donors** – Similar to cross-nursing, women can directly exchange milk on a small scale such as within a local parent group.

So while wet-nursing was once crucial for infant nutrition and survival, extensive alternatives now exist in the modern world. Women have multiple options if they are unable or prefer not to directly nurse their own child.

What is the Outlook for Wet-Nursing in the Future?

Wet-nursing persists around the globe, especially in developing nations where alternatives may be inaccessible or unsafe. But in the industrialized world, wet-nursing is rare and likely to remain so. Some contributing factors:

– Medical advancements allow more women to breastfeed their own infants through interventions like NICUs, breast pumps and lactation support.

– Milk banks provide rigorously screened donor breastmilk obtained and distributed in regulated manner.

– Formula companies heavily market commercial formula as safe and advanced, lessening concerns over artificial feeding.

– Bottle-feeding is generally socially accepted, whereas wet-nursing is considered unconventional.

– Cross-nursing and direct milk donation have emerged when women wish to exchange breastmilk informally.

– Surrogacy and milk sharing/selling via the internet provide options outside of regulated milk banks.

So while wet-nursing persists in developing regions, its use will likely continue to diminish in the industrialized world as alternatives become safer, affordable and more accessible. But unique situations may warrant careful consideration of wet nurses.


Wet-nursing is an ancient practice that was once vital for infant survival across cultures. While largely absent from modern life in developed nations, it persists where breastfeeding alternatives are inaccessible or unsafe. The many religious, cultural, medical and societal factors influencing wet-nursing demonstrate its complexity. When done ethically, it can benefit foster and biological families. But concerns over health, safety and exploitation necessitate regulations. In the end, whether to engage in wet-nursing requires informed consideration of its risks, benefits and available alternatives.

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