The Return Of Wet Nursing

wet nursing baby milk bottleEmily recently graduated college with a bachelors in mathematics. She hoped to land a job in actuarial science, but her life plan has hit a few snags. First, she fell in love and got married. Then, she got pregnant. Now as a 23-year-old with a 4-month-old baby, she has a new career goal, at least for the short term: wet nursing.

While breast-feeding her own child, Emily became convinced of the matchless value of a mother's milk. "There might be some people out there who feel the same way, and who can't produce enough breast milk," she thought. "This might be a need I don't realize is out there."

The need for breast milk is out there, in a big way. Mother-to-mother milk-sharing networks, like Eats on Feets, MilkShare and Human Milk 4 Human Babies, have exploded in the last 18 months, connecting mothers who can't produce enough with mothers who produce too much. Milk banks, which collect, pool, pasteurize and package human milk, are desperately appealing for more donations to meet the soaring demand.

Wet nursing is a growing industry too, but a mostly invisible one. Emily, like most of the other women interviewed for this article, requested that we leave out her last name. After all, the idea of breastfeeding another woman's child for money makes many uncomfortable. But not Emily, who within a few hours applied and joined the over 1,000 women on Certified Household Staffing's fast-expanding wet nurse registry. Certified Household Staffing is an Los Angeles-based agency that provides for almost every imaginable domestic need. Just over 10 years ago, wet nursing was added to the roster.

Most wet nurses spend at least a year living with the family that's employing them, according to Robert Feinstock, the managing director of Certified Household Staffing. After all, babies need to be fed every few hours, day and night.

"It's very tiring," he says. "The nursing mom is walking around in a daze half the time. She's not getting sleep."

For her trouble, the wet nurse receives an average of $1,000 a week. Like most families who can afford to employ domestic help, there's a good chance that the parents have pretty demanding careers. "When you see a woman out with a celebrity and her children, many times that's not a nanny," says Feinstock. "We're in Hollywood, we deal with a lot of people who are known throughout the world."


The Return Of The Breast

The rise of wet nursing is a testament to our newfound, or rather re-found, appreciation of breastfeeding. Doctors and formula makers had were so successful at convincing new mothers that bottle-feeding was the modern, convenient, and healthy option that by the mid-1950s, only one in five babies ever latched their mother's breast at all.

But cascades of research in the last few decades has led to cascades of initiatives to put the mammary back in the human mammal. The number of breastfed babies has been creeping up every year since 2007, when the U.S. government began tracking it. But at six months, only 15 percent were fed only breast milk, which is what the World Health Organization, UNICEF, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American College of Nurse-Midwives all recommend.

Yet feeding a baby breast milk for six months is a challenge, especially when only half of working mothers in this country get any paid maternity leave, and breastfeeding publicly can draw stares, harassment and even arrest. Since formula was cheap and plentiful by the time women entered the workplace, offices didn't need to adapt to babies or breastfeeding, and neither did shopping malls, restaurants, buses, parks, you name it. Nothing can mash the morale of new mothers quite like telling them something they can't do is critical to their babies' health.

"The social pressures, the moral pressures on mothers, in the name of these so-called health benefits is to a degree that is absurd," says Linda Blum, the author of a book on the ideology of breastfeeding. "Mothers feel tremendous guilt."

Many women, for medical reasons, find breastfeeding impossible, period. That was the case for one woman, a gynecologist living in California. Unable to produce enough milk, but strongly opposed to formula, she hired a wet nurse through Certified Household Staffing. The woman lived with her and her young daughter for almost two years.

"I was lucky. Really lucky," she says. "She was an amazing person."


The "Ick" Factor

For all our reverence of breast milk today, our feelings about the act of breastfeeding are decidedly more mixed. "Breasts are so highly sexualized, once they're used for their intended purpose, it seems odd to people," says Janet Golden the author of "A Social History of Wet Nursing in America." Breastfeeding in public fell under most state's "indecent exposure" laws until the past decade, and Facebook still removes photos of mothers nursing because of concerns about obscenity.

When those breasts are feeding another person's baby, those sexual connotations get all the more muddled. "A lot of people are like: Ewww, I don't want to give my baby somebody else's milk,' " says Ellen Steinberg, an L.A.-based lactation consultant. "But you're giving a baby some cow's milk, as opposed to some human milk, which isn't even species-specific for the baby."

Even medical professionals are squeamish about these practices. The Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly advise against this kind of unregulated milk sharing. They worry about transmitted diseases, and recommend milk banks instead, even though pasteurization strips the milk of some of its benefits.

Mothers are usually pretty rigorous about feeding their babies milk free of blood-borne pathogens. Certified Household Staffing ensures that all its wet nurses are screened, and Emily for one will request that the baby is screened as well. Most milk-sharing mothers ask for some proof-of-health, and are free to pasteurize the donation at home.

A wet nurse can even have a healthier lifestyle than the mother herself, if she so desires: no drinking, no smoking, no preservatives, no meds. "I'm gluten-free and a vegetarian, mostly," says Tiona, who recently signed onto the wet nurse registry, after hormones caused her body to start lactating spontaneously. "I cheat on Thanksgiving," she admits, but her careful diet the rest of the year might be a perk for some potential employers.

Medical professionals and those in the milk banking business still won't budge. "We're not a part of wet nursing or casual sharing of milk, nor do we support it," says Jean Drulis, the president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. "Parents should know that human milk is tops. The best gift you can give. And human donor milk is second."

Milk banking, however, isn't a realistic solution for most mothers. The majority of the limited stock in America's 11 milk banks goes to the sick and premature babies who need it most. If you were to get a prescription for milk from a milk bank, to feed your infant at home, your insurance probably wouldn't cover it. And at $4.50 an ounce, feeding a 4-to-6-month-old baby for three months could cost over $12,000.


A Modern Take On An Old Trade

Wet nurses today are a far cry from your 18th or 19th century wet nurse, who was usually working class, and "morally ruined" by a baby out of wedlock. With few other options, these women would sell their nursing services to a wealthy family, and abandon their own children at an institution or worse.

"They were essentially condemning their baby to death," says Golden. "It was trading the life of a poor infant for a wealthy one."

But while most mothers hire a wet nurse out of need, many women say they pursue wet nursing out of love. When Seemoy Hugh became a baby nurse, a specialist in newborn care, just like her mother and sisters, she said that she "found that to be my true calling." Before that point, she studied English at college, met her husband while serving in the military, became certified as a financial analyst, and got a job as a teacher. She recently joined the wet nurse registry.

"I've seen how hard it is for some parents," said Tiona, who also has years of experience working with children. "Now I can help people at the time they're born with something that will affect them for the rest of their lives."

The family that employs Tiona will have to be in a reasonable radius of her Massachusetts college, however. 19-year-old Tiona has other obligations, like earning her teaching degree, and her a cappella group.

"It's not like it would be the lower class serving the upper class," said Emily. If she had to move into the family's home, her baby, and husband, would be coming with her.


The Mother-Baby Bonds

Some researchers see wet nursing as a glorified breast pump, a Band-Aid that fails to address the underlying problem: How difficult it is for women to breastfeed the medically recommended amount.

While breastfeeding is "a lot, lot, lot better than formula," according to Mary Renfrew, the director of the Mother and Infant Research Unit at the University of York, and co-author of numerous books on breastfeeding, "it is still diminishing breastfeeding to a product, rather than a relationship. It's still driving women's lives to fit a pattern we demand of them."

But many wet nurses feel like they're uprooting the pattern. For Hugh, breastfeeding another child is just a natural extension of her baby nursing. "The only thing that I would be doing differently is allowing the child to latch on," she says.

Wet nursing makes many uncomfortable, because it tramples on the sacred idea of an exclusive mother-baby bond, according to Virginia Thorley, a lactation consultant and medical historian. But it also creates new relationships. The California gynecologist mentioned earlier became good friends with her wet nurse, who still comes to visit once a month. She calls her "the second mommy."

Wet nursing is, in small part, a return to the "it takes a village to raise a child" mantra, and harks to the "milk kinship" of Islamic culture. Like the godparent tradition in the West, wet nursing made sure two families were invested in a baby's lifelong welfare.

Like the breastfeeding flash mobbers across the UK, or the few desperate moms who posted for milk on Facebook and launched a community milk-sharing movement, or the women who cross-nurse behind closed doors, wet nurses are reimagining how breastfeeding can fit into a world where it is difficult, and sometimes impossible. That involves some serious reshuffling of how we understand families, labor relations, and women's bodies. And that has rarely been done without a little bit of "ick."



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16 Comments

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Khyraen

@Jenniferjmyrs21 and every other keep it at home mom : Requiring women to make sure you don't see them breastfeeding is a significant factor in the low rates of breastfeeding and subsequent poor health we experience in this country. According to your guidelines, my children and I would have to have spent seven years staying home, thus far, because you are incapable of averting your eyes. Shame on you!

January 23 2012 at 7:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jenniferjmyrs21

really women, people don't want too see this, parents don't want children seeing it, have respect for yourself, their are places for this, public aint it

January 23 2012 at 11:44 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jenniferjmyrs21's comment
BreastIsALWAYSBest

Have respect for ourselves? Um, so what are your boobs for? Sex? Yep, that's a better alternative alright. Where are the "places for this"? Because I had my daughter at age 21 and breastfed her for an entire year and I can assure you that Babies R' Us was the ONLY place that had a nursing area. I'm sorry, do you think we should feed our babies in a bathroom? Because I can't imagine that you would ever go to a restaurant and eat your meal in the bathroom. Children don't see anything because most women including myself use a something to cover up. You are exactly the kind of person that is ruining what should be a natural and extremely healthy experience for new moms and babies by your narrow mindedness. If you really are 21 as your name implies, GROW UP! Like I already said, I had a baby at your age and am quite frankly embarrassed that yet another person from my generation could be so dumb. Is breastfeeding easy? Not always. But let me tell you that I have had 2 ear infections in my entire life because my mom breastfed me and now I have a much lower risk of getting breast cancer because I breastfed my daughter so the benefits FAR outweigh your immature criticisms.

February 07 2012 at 12:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Julie

I have 3 kids...I am not going to keep my older kids secluded in my house because people can't handled me feeding my baby in public. I would bring a bottle of milk I pumped, but that is saved for when I work. If I have a lot I do use prefer it over nursing in public but usually I don't have enough. I always nurse my baby before I am going out in public but depending on the age my baby may still need to nurse in public.

January 03 2014 at 12:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
oceanmoontigress

I wouldn't call it wet-nursing, if you aren't actually nursing the infant. I once nursed someone's fairly newborn infant as she was off running an errand, the infant was crying and the father didn't know what to do. He finally accepted my offer and the infant nursed, then fell asleep. A happy ending for all.

January 22 2012 at 4:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Renee Roso

Lovely article, Claire. Although at the beginning of the article you state that last names will be withheld for anonymity's sake but near the end you identify one of the wet nurses as "Hugh" in this sentence:

"For Hugh, breastfeeding another child is just a natural extension of her baby nursing. "The only thing that I would be doing differently is allowing the child to latch on," she says.""

I wanted to alert you to this possible identifying factor.

Best,
Renee

January 22 2012 at 12:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Renee Roso's comment
clairegordon11

Hi Renee,

Most of the women didn't want to have their last names mentioned, but Seemoy Hugh was happy to be identified, and I always want to include people's full names when possible.

Thanks so much for reading, and noticing that inconsistency.

All the best, claire

January 22 2012 at 4:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
muzicnancy

I nursed all of my children for a minimum of 2 years. Not only did they not get ear infections, but the nursing helped widen their palates so that none of them needed braces. I pumped milk for a mom who was adopting and wanted to feed her child breast milk. When my niece needed consoling and her mother wasn't available, I comfort nursed her. I have no problem with someone nursing another woman's baby. That said, babys that are bottle fed can also have the close bonds with their mothers if the moms hold their children while they are giving them their bottles. Too many people go for convenience and prop up the bottle causing the child to miss out on close personal time.

January 22 2012 at 1:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Beverly

Why is there a photo of a baby bottle accompanying this story instead of a photo of a woman breastfeeding a baby?

January 22 2012 at 1:26 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
Bonnie Joy

I don't think it's wrong or gross to nurse a baby that's not your own. However, I do think it's sad that so many mothers have more important things to do than feed their own babies. There are definitely circumstances where the mother can't do the breastfeeding, and it's great if someone else is able to. I just think it should be a last resort if you really can't nurse your own baby, or if you had to be away from your child for a short period and they needed fed and someone you knew and trusted was able to.

January 22 2012 at 12:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jamie

I don't see anything wrong with it, breast is best. If you just look on the back of a *formula* can you can see that. While I say this I have nothing against my FF friends and in fact I was a FF child. I BF both my children, but because of latch issues choose to pump rather than go to *formula* I was more than lucky to have an over supply and with my 2nd child donated a whole year to another mother who had an adopted child. If wet nursing would have been available where I live, I would have been more than happy to contribute to another child breast or pumping. This is a choice that one can make you either do or don't either way your baby is going to get fed.

January 21 2012 at 7:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sbblessedbe2

research has shown that breastfed children tend to be healthier, more intelligent, well adjusted. their mouths form better so there is no need for braces. there are many many more benefits. one of the reasons is that human mild is much easier to digest and contains more nutrients to develope the brain. Cows milk is is by nature to form muscles more than anything else because that is what is needed first and foremost. it is the reason calfs stand immediately. So they can run from predators. human milk is formulated to develop the brain first. also human milk has many ingredients that have yet been identified. so they can't be recreated. that is why formula keeps changing, because new nutrients have been identified. there has been tragically many times when it is discovered that formula was lacking the necessary nutrients. so yes breast is best and leaves formula a distant 2nd.

January 21 2012 at 7:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sbblessedbe2's comment
Renee Roso

Personally, I prefer to describe breastfeeding as the baseline and describe the risks of formula instead of the benefits of formula. It's an interesting exercise to rephrase a description of breastfeeding benefits to formula risks. For example, here is your statement reworded:

"research has shown that formula fed children tend to be less healthy, less intelligent, less adjusted. their mouths form irregularly so there need for braces. there are many many more risks. one of the reasons is that formula is much harder to digest and contains less nutrients to develope the brain."

We talked a lot about this in my lactation counselor training and it has really changed how i think/talk about breastfeeding.

January 22 2012 at 12:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
btyntbest

I don;t buy into the idea breast is best. I bottle fed both of my children and they are wonderful, and healthy kids who are very close to me. The bonding argument is ridiculous to me. I loved them both the minute I saw them and felt very connected to each of them. I find it amazing how many women wait to have children and then rush back to work. Now they can't even feed their own children?? I worked and my kids are 11 months apart. Women have lost touch with their responsibilities. It seems like many of them want to take shortcuts, and now wet nursing. Geez, I have heard it all.

January 21 2012 at 6:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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