Wet nursing has a complicated history. There’s some good in it, but there’s definitely some bad that’s hard to hear. It’s kind of strange to say that when the act is so simple: ensuring a baby receives milk even if the baby’s mother can’t provide it for some reason.
Why is a Wet Nurse Necessary?
The truth is that there are a lot of reasons why someone would want to work with a wet nurse. Some women simply can’t feed their babies for some reason.
The mother could be sick or taking medication that might affect the breastmilk. Other times, the woman simply doesn’t want to do the job.
It’s not easy to breastfeed a baby. Sometimes, women deal with chapped nipples among other unpleasant issues. A busy mom may not have time to feed her baby, so a wet nurse would be helpful in this situation as well.
Sometimes, the reason a wet nurse is needed is that the mother passes away. In short, a wet nurse’s contribution is incredibly important for an infant and the infant’s family.
Looking Back at Wet Nursing
Modern infant formula is a great thing, but it didn’t exist for a long time. In those times before infant formula, the medical industry and babies around the world could only depend on a mother’s milk.
At times, mothers couldn’t feed their babies, and when that happened, babies would sometimes die from malnutrition.
Medical institutions relied on artificial food, but that wasn’t enough for infants. These babies needed something more substantial, which is milk. Once medical institutions realized this, they began to hire wet nurses.
In the early 1900s, wet nursing was a real job, but the women who did this job were usually impoverished. Their financial situation would force them to feed not just one infant but several a day that took a toll on them, but there was nothing they could do, especially when the depression hit, which was around the corner.
The women who became wet nurses couldn’t take care of themselves, let alone their babies. Sometimes, these women were abandoned by the father of their babies or their families.
The Class Division
Things became even stranger. In the beginning, medical institutions were hiring these women, but after a while, affluent women began to hire them.
These affluent women didn’t want to deal with that side of motherhood, so they passed on the job to someone else. Most of the time, these wet nurses were not allowed to bring their children with them. Babies need to be fed often, so the children left behind would sometimes die from starvation.
Were all wet nurses poor? No, some were middle class and even wealthy. Some were friends of the mother who couldn’t breastfeed.
Still, the majority of these women were poor and didn’t have any other choice but to take this kind of work. As the economic depression continued to stress people, some women without kids got pregnant just so that they could have a chance at this job.
The class division between the affluent mothers and the wet nurses became so toxic that it started to affect the relationship. Mothers who had enough money to hire these women were very suspicious of wet nurses. They looked at them as desperate women who might steal from them.
When they were hired, some of these workers were subjected to humiliation because they weren’t trusted. Of course, these women were desperate enough to take much of the abuse without question or protest.
These wealthy mothers were afraid that these women were diseased since they were so poor. They would look for any reason to fire one and hire another wet nurse. This made the job unstable for women, which made things more difficult for these women during trying times.
Slavery Played a Part
Another reason why wet nursing feels a bit strange is that slaves breastfed white babies many years ago in America.
Sometimes, enslaved lactating women were passed around from family to family if they were needed. Some owners made sure their enslaved women became pregnant so that they could be used as wet nurses.
Like the other women mentioned earlier, the slave’s baby died at times because he or she wasn’t fed as often.
Enslaved women tried to help each other out, but this could only happen if there were other lactating women around. If there were other lactating women, then feeding babies was a communal effort. Sadly, these women were forced to feed babies rather than doing so of their own free will. This isn’t to say that poor white women weren’t dealing with exploitation because they were, but the experience was a bit different.
Sadly, the babies these enslaved women fed would sometimes grow up and be cruel to them, just like the slave owner.
Wet nursing today isn’t as horrible to women as it has been in the past. Today, society seems to value mother’s milk and hold it in high esteem.
Women who want to make sure their babies only drink something natural are more than willing to pay wet nurses a healthy amount of money for their labor. These lactating mothers are given the freedom to bring their babies if they want and much more. Things have improved, but it’s still sad to see how the wet nurse was treated in this country.