What has caused our society as a whole to believe that artificial baby milk is good for babies and that breastfeeding must be defended? Why do we depict breastfeeding as something done in the privacy of a bedroom? Why do we associate breastfeeding  with young babies and not older infants?

Writings from before the time of Christ clearly spoke of the importance of breastfeeding. Attempts at artificial feeding were made throughout history, without much success. Interestingly, artificial feeding devices have been found in ancient infant graves. Until recently breastfeeding remained the primary method of infant feeding, as human milk meant the difference between life and death. Historically, in periods of "social dazzle and lowered moral standards," breastfeeding rates dropped. In times where the society is stable and hard working breastfeeding thrives. (Lawrence and Lawrence 9)

Wet Nursing

"Before the advent of commercial formula, wet nurses flourished in times and places of sharp class distinctions (Edwards and Waldorf 70)." The practice of wet nursing was deeply ingrained in ancient cultures. There were contracts made between parents and wet nurses in ancient Mesopotamia. The Babylonian King, Hammurabi, wrote a set of laws concerning the wet nurse's care of the infant (Stuart-Macadam and Dettwyler 102). When Moses was drawn from the waters of the Nile by Pharaoh's daughter, his own sister suggested, "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women that she may nurse the child for thee? (Exodus 2: 5-7)" Moses, of course, ended up being "wet nursed" by his own mother. The practice  continued among the aristocracy through the Greek and Roman empires. Wet nursing was probably introduced to Europe during the Roman occupation (Stuart-Macadam and Dettwyler 102).

Among the wealthy upper class in European countries from 1500 to 1700 the hiring of wet nurses was the norm. When a member of royalty was expecting, several wet nurses were kept "on standby." The new heir may have had several wet nurses until weaning. Louis XVI [1754-93] had four wet nurses before he was weaned at the age of 24 months (Baumslag and Michels 43). The expectant mother was responsible for choosing a wet nurse of good temperament and morals. The wet nurse was under the strict supervision of the mother in her home. In return, wet nurses were well cared for in the homes of the wealthy. They often lived in the same home for years. It was a tremendous employment opportunity for the poor. "Women seeking these lucrative jobs, neglected, abandoned or even deliberately suffocated their own infants so they could take the job of breastfeeding someone else's child (Baumslag and Michels 43)." While the upper class could pay for wet nurses, the "general population resorted
to group nursing, to passing a baby around if the mother couldn't nurse, if she was out in the fields or if she died (Raphael 49)." Wet nurses also had a vital function in foundling homes (orphanages). In one Paris Hospital for abandoned babies, an Obstetrician named Pierre Budin, estimated that a wet nurse breastfed as often as thirty times a day; producing up to five quarts of milk per day. The greater the demand for their milk the more the wet nurses produced. (Baumslag and Michels 40)

Live-in wet nurses went out of fashion for a time. Newborns were sent to live in the wet nurse's home until they were weaned. This "farming out" of newborns removed the child from his family and lacked the day to day supervisory aspect of the live-in wet nurse. This was probably the beginning of what is called today "detached parenting." French laws prohibited a wet nurse from breastfeeding more than two infants (besides her own). Separate beds had to be provided for each baby and the wet nurse was prohibited from sleeping with the infants (Lawrence and Lawrence 9).

Babies were dying under the care of wet nurses. In the mid- 18th century it became fashionable again for the wealthy to nurse their own infants. There were legitimate concerns that untreatable diseases were transmitted through breastmilk.

Wet nursing was exported to the New World. Colonial news papers served as a way to locate a wet nurse as early as 1711 (Baumslag and Michels 45). In America's Pre-Civil War South, "Privileged children were nursed at the breasts of black women . . . The property of their parents (Edwards and Waldorf 70)."   Privileged white women had baby after baby, fed and cared for by African American wet nurses. The duties of some female slaves included breeding and breastfeeding. The rules protecting the slave woman feeding her own child were very explicit including: a suckling period of one year, field work at 60% of that done by a full field hand, within a short distance of the children's house, a period of "cool down" after reaching the children's house, and 45 minutes to breastfeed three times a day until their child was 8 months old (Baumslag and Michels 51).

The movie "The Last Emperor," shows the young Chinese emperor (circa 1906) had a wet nurse for almost twelve years. Why twelve years? Royal families knew that breastfeeding would make their offspring healthier, taller and stronger than the average person. In having the child breastfed for long periods, royalty was insuring their family's succession to the throne. Royal families also recognized that breastfeeding delayed subsequent pregnancies. Infant mortality rates were very high. It was not uncommon for royal families to have 10 or more children and only one would live into adulthood. Having more children survive into adulthood also assured the throne would remain within the family.

Today, some women "cross nurse", or wet nurse, the children of close friends or sisters, but the practice has been discouraged due to the possibility of HIV and hepatitis transmission. However, wet nursing continues in many Third World countries when the mother is ill or has died.

Check out mothering: Breastfeeding in Rewind some great history of breastfeeding in pictures



[Back to part 1: Breastfeeding the Lost Art]

Copyright Marie Davis, RN, IBCLC 1999     email me


[The Legacy of Scientific Motherhood] [index]

Last reviewed: Friday, October 1, 2010