The history of wet nursing

Written by kathryn white
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Wet-nursing, the practice of hiring someone other than the mother to nurse an infant, has played a only a minor role in debates between formula feeding and breast feeding. However, it was once the option of choice when it came to rearing children. From Imperial China to Victorian England, wet nursing played a prominent role in both ancient and modern history.

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Ancient Egypt

Poor women in Ancient Egypt often supplemented their family's income by providing wet nurse services for upper class citizens or mothers who didn't have enough milk. Their employers used written contracts to ensure good milk and prevent the wet nurse from nursing other children, having sex, or getting pregnant. In turn, the employer paid the wet nurse for her milk, fed her, and clothed the child. While babies of the same class were taken to the wet nurse's home, those of the upper class were nursed in their own homes. Women lucky enough to become royal wet nurses in Ancient Egypt were honoured in the tombs of their charges. In addition, their children were raised in the royal palace as "milk siblings" of the princes and princesses with whom they experienced close relationships.

Greece and Rome

Popular throughout the ancient world, wet nursing experienced both controversy and popularity in the Greco-Roman regions. In Ancient Greece, those who could afford it hired special slaves called "duolos" as wet nurses. In fact, a 2nd century genocologist named Soranus of Ephesus warned that a mother's milk was no good for the first 20 days after giving birth. As wet nurses, he promoted the use of slaves between the ages of 20-40 and recommended that they be self-controlled, good-tempered, of good colour, tidy, and Greek. Even the Romans preferred Greek wet nurses whom they hoped would set cultural examples for their infants. Although the philosopher Plato advocated wet nurses, other famous Greeks such as Aristotle and Plutarch argued against them.

Islamic Law

The Koran sheds some light on the use of wet nurses in Muslim culture. According to Islamic law, a divorced father must hire a wet nurse for his child. However, if the baby won't take to the wet nurse's breast, or the father doesn't have enough money, the law then makes the mother responsible for breast feeding. The Koran is also explicit that hiring a wet nurse is not considered a sin as long as the wet nurse is decently paid.

European Aristocracy

By the 11th century, the aristocracy and royalty of Europe used wet nurses almost exclusively. In taking the baby from the mother, they prevented her from experiencing the birth control effects of producing milk and nursing. This allowed the women to stay fertile and produce more babies. It also left them open to sexual activity with their husbands as having sex with a nursing mother was considered taboo and harmful to the health of the baby. In France, the custom was to send infants to the country for wet nursing. However, by the end of the 18th century in France, the urban poor had also begun to send their babies out of the city so that the mothers could work. In fact, in 1780, only 700 babies out of 21,000 born that year nursed from their mothers. This high demand for wet-nurses caused quality to go down and infant mortality to rise.

Wet Nursing and Bourgeois Values

Because the Netherlands didn't have a court life like other European countries, their cultural ideals tended to revolve around the bourgeois lifestyle. This included a rejection of the aristocratic advocacy of wet nursing. Instead, the Dutch promoted an ideal focused around an immaculate household centred around the nursing mother as a part of civic responsibility. In fact, Pieter de Hooch and other Dutch painters documented these values burgeoning in the 17th century. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution then introduced some of these same ideas to the rest of Europe in the 18th century. Jean Jaques Rousseau himself denounced wet nursing in favour of nursing by the mother. However, only some people in the upper middle class changed their habits, and, despite the critiques of a few political radicals and women's rights defenders, wet-nursing remained popular in England through the Victorian Era and in France until World War I.

Decline of Wet Nursing

At the beginning of the 20th century, a comprehensive study by the French government showed that wide spread wet-nursing was contributing to infant death rates. This empirical information, which coincided with the development of new technology, initiated a change towards bottle feeding. The inventions of the rubber nipple, the bottle, pasteurisation, and canned milk all made this new method of feeding possible and helped seal the decline of wet-nursing.

Wet Nursing in Modern China

Considered an aristocratic invention, wet nursing tends to be frowned upon by societies focused on egalitarianism. Therefore, Chinese communists after World War II worked to outlaw what had been an ancient tradition in their country. Yet, the rise of wealth in China during the first part of the 21st century has lead to wet nursing's illegal resurgence as a status symbol. Although they can make up to 8 times their working world salaries, wet nurses in China must leave their own children, maintain a special diet, and undergo training in certain cases. Furthermore, if the babies that they nurse do not grow 20 grams each day, the wet nurses are fined by their employers.

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