Wet-nursing, Cross-nursing and Milk-sharing: Outdated?

World Breastfeeding Week 2013 Blog Carnival - NursingFreedom.org and The San Diego Breastfeeding Center

Welcome to the World Breastfeeding 2013 Blog Carnival cohosted by NursingFreedom.org and The San Diego Breastfeeding Center!

This post was written for inclusion in the WBW 2013 Blog Carnival. Our participants will be writing and sharing their stories about community support and normalizing breastfeeding all week long. Find more participating sites in the list at the bottom of this post or at the main carnival page.


I received 20 emails in one day about the Life & Style blurb regarding Alicia Silverstone’s milk-sharing program and how the magazine compared it to slavery. Wendy Williams was the source of the quote:


“Alicia Silverstone’s breastmilk-sharing program is not new–slaves used to be wet nurses. But you know something’s a bad idea when the last time it was popular was during the Civil War. It’s 2013!”

Well, come on, it’s Life & Style and Wendy Williams. I’m not really sure why we are outraged. What did you expect? Quality content on the topic of breastfeeding from these two sources?

Okay, so that has taken up enough space in this post. I agree, it is silly, let’s move on…


Why Donate Breastmilk?

Summer Cassidy, RN, BSN, IBCLC, Lactation Educator, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital explains the importance of donated human milk:

Human milk dramatically boosts the chances for sick and fragile premature newborns to survive; however, not every mom can produce it.

For these infants, human milk has life-saving health benefits:

  • Lowers risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)—the most common and most fatal gastrointestinal emergency in the NICU.
  • Decreases risk of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)—a potentially blinding eye disease that is primarily seen in premature babies.
  • Lowers sepsis (infection) rates.
  • Decreases length of stay in the NICU by approximately two weeks.
  • Decreases incidence of feeding intolerance and diarrhea.


A Brief Overview of the History of the Wetnurse


Wet-nursing and cross-nursing is not unusual for mammalian species.  Alloparenting and Allomothering are common within the animal kingdom, and wet-nursing is known to be included in this kind of non-maternal care for the young.





In the Book of Genesis, Rebekah (wife of Isaac) is nursed by Deborah as an infant and child.

The Book of Exodus has Moses being wet-nursed, but it, as we know from this ancient story, was actually his own mother.

Muhammad was foster mothered and wet-nursed by Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb. Wet nurses came to Mecca from the desert. They preferred that the fathers of the children they fed were still alive, but did sometimes take on double orphans (like in the case of Muhammad).


Ancient Times:

Wet-nursing was especially common in ancient times because the maternal mortality rate was very high, but it also became the cultural norm in some regions of the world.

Ancient Rome even had a Columna Lactaria “Milk Column”. It is believed that this was a location where poor parents could obtain milk for their infants, or where one could hire a wet nurse.


16th- 19th Century:


The wet nurse by Pieter de Hoogh

Royalty or nobility during this time would have multiple wet nurses for their infants.

“Louis XVI [1754-93] had four wet nurses before he was weaned at the age of 24 months.” -Source 

Wet-nursing was so common during this time in Britain that it was mentioned in Emma:

“For years it was a really good job for a woman. In 17th- and 18th-century Britain, a woman would earn more money as a wet nurse than her husband could as a labourer. And if you were a royal wet nurse you would be honoured for life.”

Marie Davis addresses using black wet nurses prior to and during the American Civil War:

“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).”

Wet-nursing in England began to decrease in the early 19th century when the infant mortality rate for children of wet nurses was increasing. Children during the last century were frequently sent to live with the wet nurse without any parental supervision and the wet nurses were not allowed to sleep with the infants.


20th Century:


Mid 20th Century Formula Advertisement

Wet nurses were still commonly used in the  early 20th century, but fell out of fashion in the West when infant formula was introduced and became readily available.




Photo Source: UNICEF

Wet-nursing and cross-nursing are still very common in various countries around the world, but are viewed as taboo in modern-day Western cultures.

“The exchange of body fluids between different women and children, and the exposure of intimate bodily parts make some people uncomfortable. The hidden subtext of these debates has to do with perceptions of moral decency. Cultures with breast fetishes tend to conflate the sexual and erotic breast with the functional and lactating breast.” -Rhonda Shaw


World Breastfeeding Week 2013 Blog Carnival - NursingFreedom.org and The San Diego Breastfeeding Center Visit NursingFreedom.org and The San Diego Breastfeeding Center for more breastfeeding resources and WBW Carnival details!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants. Below are a list of links for today’s participants; you can find a complete list of links (updated throughout the week) at our main carnival page:

(This list will be updated by afternoon August 3 with all the carnival links.)

  • Breastfeeding and NIP: A Primer — Rachel Rainbolt of Sage Parenting, featured today at NursingFreedom.org, uses her informative and candid voice to share with you everything you need to know to breastfeed successfully in public, from the practical how-to’s to handling the social stigma.
  • Lactivist Ryan Gosling — Breastfeeding mamas, the time is long overdue for a Lactivist Ryan Gosling. Fortunately, Dionna of Code Name: Mama has created some for your viewing pleasure.
  • In Defense of Formula — Amy of Mom2Mom KMC, guest blogging for Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, asserts that formula is a medical tool rather than a food. She examines how this perspective supports breastfeeding as normal and eliminates the negative tensions between breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding mothers.
  • World Breastfeeding Week 2013 Blog Carnival – Breastfeeding Tips & Tricks — Throughout her breastfeeding journey (since March 2009), Jenny at I’m a full-time mummy has shared countless tips and tricks on the topic of breastfeeding.
  • Nursing in the Wild — Meredith at Thank You Ma’am posts about how seeing other moms nurse can make all of us more comfortable with nursing in public.
  • Normalizing Breastfeeding — Sara Stepford of The Stepford Sisters confronts the social stigma vs. the reality of breastfeeding and opens up about the steps she takes to make herself and others more comfortable with the process.
  • Breastfeeding Alrik at two years old — This is where Lauren at Hobo Mama and her second-born are at in their nursing relationship, two years in.
  • Perfectly Normal — Stephanie from Urban Hippie writes about the way she and her family have done their part to try and normalize breastfeeding in a society that doesn’t get to see breastfeeding as often as they should.
  • Diagnosis: Excess Lipase — Learn about excess lipase and how to test if your expressed milk has it. That Mama Gretchen shares her own experience.
  • Redefining Normal — Diana at Munchkin’s Mommy reflects on how we can normalize breastfeeding in our society.
  • Nursing Openly and Honestly — Amy W. at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work feels that the most socially responsible thing she can do as a mother is to nurse and nurture her children openly, honestly, and with pride.
  • Wet-nursing, Cross-nursing and Milk-sharing: Outdated? — Jamie Grumet of I Am Not the Babysitter shares a response to the Wendy Williams quote about milk sharing being akin to slavery, by giving a brief history of the wet nurse.
  • Tackling Mastitis with an Older Nursling — Much of the advice available for supporting recovery from mastitis seems to be aimed at mamas with younger nurslings. Juliet of Twisting Vines, posting at Natural Parents Network shares tips for dealing with mastitis while breastfeeding a toddler.
  • Milk in the eye — Gena from Nutrition Basics discusses how breastmilk cured her 3 year old’s case of pink eye.
  • Boobie Biter — Rachel Rainbolt at Sage Parenting offers guidance on how to survive and thrive a boobie biter with your breastfeeding relationship intact.
  • My take on breastfeeding advice — Diana at Munchkin’s Mommy shares her insights on nursing for both new moms and new dads.
  • My Top Five Breastfeeding Tips for Delivery Day: Think “A-B-C-D-E”Mothernova shares how her continued success at breastfeeding with her second child rests on a foundation of five key things she did to prepare for baby’s arrival, along with things she did when she and baby first met. Easily enough, these tips can be categorized as “A-B-C-D-E”: Access to lactation consultant, Baby-friendly hospital, Communicate your plan to breastfeed exclusively, Demand, and Expect to room in.
  • Breastfeeding Buddies: Twin Brothers Nurse while Living in the NICU — Twintrospectives at How Do You Do It? shares her 5 tips for learning to breastfeed multiples while in the NICU.
  • Breastfeeding on a Dairy-Free Diet: Our Journey and Our Tips — Finding herself nursing a baby with food allergies, Jenny at Spinning Jenny embarked upon a dairy-free journey with her son for eight months. Here she relates her reasons for making the decision to give up dairy in her diet, why it was worth it, and tips for moms on the same path.
  • Normalizing Breastfeeding in my Home — Shannah at The Touch of Life shares how she plans to help keep breastfeeding normal for her own children, even when her breastfeeding years are over.
  • A Year With My Nursling — The more you see and hear, the more normal it becomes, so That Mama Gretchen is sharing her heart on the last year of breastfeeding – the ups and downs, but mostly the joy of her priceless relationship with her son.
  • From Covered to Confident — Krystyna at Sweet Pea Births shares her personal NIP evolution: she started by covering up from neck to ankle while nursing in public. Eight years later, she has gained confidence and the ability to nurse without stressing about flashing a little skin. She shares her views on normalizing breastfeeding – what influenced her and how she hopes to help others.
  • Normalizing Breastfeeding for Older Kids — Sadia at How Do You Do It? hopes that openly discussing breastfeeding with her (now weaned) daughters will help her children feel comfortable with breastfeeding and their bodies in general as they grow.
  • Nursing in Public — Listen up, mammas. Those other people around . . . they don’t matter. It’s not about them. It’s about you and that beautiful baby. Nurse on, says The Swaddled Sprout!
  • How to Nurse a Teenager — Sarah at The Touch of Life declares: the purpose is to help normalize breastfeeding a toddler.

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Write a comment
  1. Lauren 20 July, 2013, 05:57

    Milk sharing is alive and well. Nearly every state has a milk sharing group or organization. I shared milk with friends’ babies, and donated quite a bit of milk to a friend who had supply issues early on. It was a huge privilege, one of the greatest gifts I’ve given other families. It’s not slavery if you do it voluntarily, nor is it remotely the same arrangement as wet nursing. It’s ot exploitation or unhygienic. People are clueless!

    Reply this comment
  2. Megan 25 July, 2013, 15:18

    When my son was in the NICU, they asked me if I would be interested in having him receive donated breast milk. They told me it was expensive, but an option. I didn’t need to do that, but I would totally donate my breast milk!

    Reply this comment
  3. Mandy 25 July, 2013, 21:29

    Ugh. That Wendy Williams quote is sickening and a sad, sad example of women being out of touch with their bodies and babies. I have donated milk to families, and I’ve breast fed my sister’s baby, a friend’s baby, and even a postpartum doula client’s baby once! Breastfeeding seems like this easy, natural thing, but most women (at least the women I’ve come in contact with) have had at least one challenge to overcome, whether it’s over supply, low supply, latching troubles, breast infections, etc. What these mamas need is SUPPORT and sometimes that means milk from other mamas they know and trust. I think it’s beautiful.

    Reply this comment
  4. Chelsea 25 July, 2013, 22:46

    To deny the power, advantages and incredible benefit of donating milk, sharing milk and wet nursing is to be completely ignorant of the true value of breast milk and to have bought the lie we’ve been sold in the US that formula is as beneficial or sufficient as breast milk. Simple research, done in an effort to find truth as opposed to cultural lies provided and paid for by formula companies, would prove just how necessary sharing of milk truly is today.

    Reply this comment
  5. Ashley 26 July, 2013, 00:29

    This is awesome. When my youngest was nursing and I went back to work there were times that his sitter couldn’t calm him in the normal methods, and so he got wet nursed by her. Except that she had no milk, so I guess that makes him dry nursed. In fact, I believe 2 or 3 different women nursed him for me. That was 5 years ago and at the time I was sleep-deprived. Not my fault I don’t remember, lol. And yes I live in America! :)

    Reply this comment
  6. Dionna @ Code Name: Mama 3 August, 2013, 17:03

    Thank you so much for all of this history – completely fascinating! I’ve nursed my nephew and one of my best friend’s toddlers, in addition to my own kiddos. I don’t think I could make a living on it, at least not if I had a nursling of my own. ;) The difference in latches is a little disconcerting.

    Reply this comment

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