A wet nurse
is a woman who breast feeds
a baby that is not her own. These children may be known as milk-siblings and in some cultures share a special relationship.
Reasons for use
A wet nurse may be employed if the mother
of a baby is unable or unwilling to breast-feed her infant. The reasons may range from drug use (prescription
), to illnesses such as cancer and their treatment. Wet nurses have also been required for a perceived insufficient production of breast milk, i.e. when the mother feels incapable of adequately nursing her child, especially following multiple births
. One traditional reason for the appearance of wet nurses in all cultures was death of women in childbirth from complications, a reason that has disappeared with modern medicine.
Some wet nurses also serve as a midwife during childbirth.
A woman can only serve as a wet nurse when she is lactating
. It is often thought that this means the wet nurse must have recently given birth to a child of her own. This may be the case, but not necessarily, since regular suckling on a woman's breast can elicit the production of milk via a neural reflex through production of prolactin
The practice of using wet nurses is ancient and found in many cultures. Sometimes it is linked to social class
. Members of property-owning classes had their children wet-nursed, in the hope of becoming pregnant again quickly to ensure an heir
. (Lactation can suppress ovulation
.) Poor women, especially those who suffered the stigma
of giving birth to an illegitimate
child, sometimes had to give their baby up, temporarily or permanently, and a wet nurse would look after it.
One myth holds that the Egyptian princess Bathiah tried giving baby Moses to wet nurses, but he would not take their milk, for he was destined to speak with the Shekhinah. The prophet Muhammad was wet-nursed by Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb. Wet nursing was reported in France in the time of Louis XIV, the early 17th century. Later, Napoleon was wet-nursed by a woman called Camilla. Wet nurses were common for children of all social ranks in the southern United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women took in babies for money in Victorian Britain, and nursed them themselves or fed them with whatever was cheapest. This was known as baby-farming; poor care sometimes resulted in high infant death rates.
Wet nursing has sometimes been used with old or sick people who have trouble taking other nutrition. John Jacob Astor and John D. Rockefeller reportedly hired wet nurses for their own use in their old age.
Sigmund Freud's theories about the Oedipal complex are speculated to have been the result of his being raised by a wet-nurse, rather than his mother. This dissociation from his mother prevented the Westermarck effect from taking hold.
Through the widespread availability of infant formula
, wet nurses are no longer necessary in developed nations
and, therefore, are not common. The act of nursing a baby other than one's own often provokes strong negative reactions in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, being compared to wife swapping
and potentially viewed as child abuse
. When a mother is unable to nurse her own infant, an acceptable mediated substitute is expressed milk (or especially colostrum
) donated to milk banks
, analogous to blood banks
The use of a wet nurse is still a common practice in many developing countries, although it poses a risk of HIV infection . The use of a wetnurse is seen as a status symbol in some parts of modern China .
Islamic law or sharia specifies the permanent family-like relationships (known as rada) incurred by people who were nursed by the same woman, i.e. who grew up together as youngsters. They and various specific relatives cannot marry, that is, they are mahram, and the rules of modesty known as hijab are relaxed, as they would be for family members.
Examples in fiction
- In William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the character Nurse had been Juliet's wet nurse. "Were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst sucked wisdom from thy teat." 1.3.72
- In George Moore's novel Esther Waters, the eponymous heroine works as a wet nurse after the birth of her son while leaving him in the hands of a baby farmer.
- In John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, set in a time of great poverty, a woman whose baby has just died, and consequently whose breasts are engorged with milk, wet-nurses a man at the point of death, as no other nourishment is available, a reference to Roman Charity.
- In the movie Spartacus, Crassus captures Spartacus's wife and baby. Since he wants Varinia as a concubine, he purchases a wet nurse for her baby. Varinia rejects his offer, saying, "I sent her away: I prefer to nurse the child myself."
- In Blackadder II, Nursie, the Queen's childhood nurse, is commonly perceived as being a wet nurse: “In the old days, it was all difficult choices. Should you have Nursie milk or moo-cow milk? Of course, it was always Nursie milk….”