Growing up as a young girl I remember my mother telling me how much she loved breastfeeding. She would say how it was her favourite thing about having a baby and would tell me stories about what is was like breastfeeding my sister and I. Yet there was one particular story that left the biggest impact on me.
My mother and her best friend Carla had babies who were nine months apart so they were breastfeeding at the same time. She said if one of them was driving and their baby was crying, the other would breastfeed for them (this was many years ago when seat belts and car seats were not as frequently used as they are now). 😀 I always loved to hear this story but never really imagined breastfeeding someone else’s baby…until I had my own.
Some people might describe wet-nursing as “gross” or “weird”, but many people do not realise that women have been wet-nursing since the beginning of time. Wet nursing has been documented as early as 2000 BC and continued until the 20th century when the feeding bottle was introduced (Stevens, Patrick & Pickler 2009). Many people feel as though it is strange yet do not think twice about giving their baby milk that is made to grow a baby calf. Many people talk about “necessity” as why wet-nursing was common place, and there is no question that in many cases it would have been a necessity for the baby to live. Yet what is hardly mentioned (if at all) in documents, research papers and articles is that wet-nursing someone else’s baby often just feels like the right thing to do. It does not only happen in extreme circumstances. It is not just about “the milk” but is also about the closeness of breastfeeding and the comfort and familiarity it brings to a baby.
Here are my experiences with wet-nursing…
I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to breastfeed two babies who were not my own. The first time I wet-nursed a baby was after a birth I had attended. Kate had an awesome homebirth and breastfed her baby within the first hour or two after the birth, yet it became clear quite quickly that something was wrong as Kate was in pain. After we transferred to hospital she was unable to breastfeed for many hours (about 7) because of her pain and the need for her to be wheeled into surgery. As I stood there holding Kate’s newborn baby while she wailed in pain, her baby started to show signs of hunger and was clearly looking for a nipple. Kate asked if I would breastfeed her and I did not hesitate for even a moment. Her baby was hungry, not yet one day old and I was still breastfeeding my two and a half year old. Her baby latched on straight away and was soon happy and content after her breastfeed. I went on to breastfeed her once more about two hours later when she needed more. So why did Kate choose a wet-nurse over bottle feeding? Many reasons…for me to pump milk would have taken quite a long time and her baby needed milk right at that moment, she did not want her baby to breastfeed on an artificial nipple as this can cause nipple confusion, she wanted her baby to have the closeness and comfort of breastfeeding and it was simply the natural thing to do. Kate also had concerns about how cow’s milk and soy formula changes a baby’s gut flora and would disrupt and irritate her baby’s digestive system.
About three years later I was getting ready to sit my five hour exam to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. This exam was intense to say the least! My youngest was only four months old and was exclusively breastfed. Although I had the option of being called during the exam to leave and breastfeed my baby, I knew this would not only be disruptive, but it would also mean my baby being upset and having to wait quite a bit of time before I was contacted and able to get to him. I asked Kate if she would return the wet-nursing favour and she said yes! I was so relieved. Not only because I knew my baby would be breastfed if needed, but she also held him in the baby carrier the whole time. She ended up breastfeeding him only once but it immediately put him to sleep and he did not cry at all the entire time. No worries about bottles or pumping. 😀
Just recently I traveled home to visit family and attend my sister’s wedding. During the wedding reception my friend Devon (who happens to be Carla’s daughter) ended up wet-nursing my sixteen month old. This is from my blog post, “The Breastfeeding Matron Of Honour”...
“My friend Devon and I were both bridesmaids and both breastfeeding our little ones. We spoke to each other about wet nursing if needed but never really thought it would have to happen…and guess what, it did! While I was putting my oldest boy to sleep (which takes forever sometimes as he might want a drink, a bandaid or other various items before he actually gets settled) my youngest woke up. Since both our babies were asleep in the same room with the babysitter watching over the monitor in the next room, Devon was called and told her baby was awake. She walked in and it was actually MY child who was awake but I was across the street in a different building! She did what many would do…popped him on the boob until I was able to come and take over! She is a great friend and I would have done the same for her in a heartbeat.”
It just happened that she was there to feed him when I was not! She had no way to get ahold of me and I am so thankful she was there to comfort and breastfeed him. The alternative would have been him crying while someone went to find me, which could have taken ages as she didn’t even know where I was at the time! Just like our mothers in the car breastfeeding each other’s babies because it was simply what made the most sense at the time, we found ourselves doing the same.
About one week after the wedding I was with my mum as she watched Devon’s baby. Devon was going to be at work for another hour and her baby was getting cranky! The “witching hour”…late afternoon, cranky time (I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about!) and it was clear to me that her baby did not only want milk, she wanted a breastfeed! Although we had milk and could have preparted a bottle, Devon said over the phone to just breastfeed her, which I did. She latched on straight away and could have cared less that it was me instead of her mother! My boobs are about twenty times smaller than Devon’s but she didn’t seem to care! 😉
Wet-nursing and milk sharing is natural, it has been happening between mothers and babies since the beginning of time and will continue to be apart of society. It is not just about the milk. It is about closeness, convenience, comfort, familiarity and nourishment through breastfeeding.
The World Health Organisation recommends the following for babies if their mother cannot breastfeed. The order is in preference from most preferred to least preferred; expressed breastmilk from the infant’s own mother , donated breastmilk from a healthy wet-nurse or human milk bank, formula.
Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, World Health Organization
To read more about Kate’s story head here, “Wet-Nursing-How To Meet Your Baby’s Needs Of Nourishment And Comfort”.
*Each woman and baby are in their own unique circumstances. There are risks involved whenever you feed your baby something other than your milk. Please visit www.eatonfeets.org for more information and resources on milk sharing. Wet nursing and milk sharing will not be the answer for every woman. It is all about having the opportunity to make an informed decision and making the right choice for you and your baby. Please contact me if you would like more information on this topic or need some help with breastfeeding.
Stevens, EE , Patrick, TE & Pickler, R 2009, ‘A history of infant feeding’, The Journal of Perinatal Education, vol. 18, no. 2, pp.32-39.
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