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A wet nurse is a woman who breast feeds and cares for another's child. Wet nurses are employed when the mother is unable or chooses not to nurse the child herself. Wet-nursed children may be known as "milk-siblings", and in some cultures the families are linked by a special relationship of milk kinship. Mothers who nurse each other's babies are engaging in a reciprocal act known as cross-nursing or co-nursing.
A wet nurse can help when a baby's natural mother is unable or chooses not to feed her infant. Before the development of baby formulas in the 20th century, when a mother was unable to breastfeed her baby, the baby's life was put in danger if a wet nurse was not available. There are many reasons why a mother is unable to lactate or to produce sufficient breast milk. Reasons include the serious or chronic illness of the mother and her treatment which creates a temporary difficulty to nursing. Additionally, a mother's taking drugs (prescription or recreational) may necessitate a wet nurse if a drug in any way changes the content of the mother's milk. Some women choose not to breastfeed for social reasons.
Wet nurses have also been used when a mother cannot produce sufficient breast milk, i.e., the mother feels incapable of adequately nursing her child, especially following multiple births. Wet nurses tend to be more common in places where the maternal mortality is high.
A woman can only act as a wet-nurse if she is lactating. It was once believed that a wet-nurse must have recently undergone childbirth. This is not necessarily true, as regular breast suckling can elicit lactation via a neural reflex of prolactin production and secretion. Some adoptive mothers have been able to establish lactation using a breast pump so that they could feed an adopted infant.
Dr Gabrielle Palmer states:
There is no medical reason why women should not lactate indefinitely or feed more than one child simultaneously (known as 'tandem feeding')... some women could theoretically be able to feed up to five babies.
The practice of using wet nurses is ancient and common to many cultures. It has been linked to social class, where monarchies, the aristocracy, nobility or upper classes had their children wet-nursed in the hope of becoming pregnant again quickly. Lactation inhibits ovulation in some women, thus the practice has a rational basis. 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, to a wet-nurse.
Many cultures feature stories, historical or mythological, involving superhuman, supernatural, human and in some instances animal wet-nurses.
The Bible refers to Deborah, a nurse to Rebekah wife of Isaac and mother of Israel, who appears to have lived as a member of the household all her days. (Genesis 35:8) Jewish Old Testament holds that the Egyptian princess Batya (whose place is occupied by Egyptian queen Asiya in Islamic legends) attempted to wet-nurse Moses, but he would only take his biological mother's milk. (Exodus 2:6-9)
In ancient Rome, well-to-do households would have had wet-nurses (Latin nutrices, singular nutrix) among their slaves and freedwomen, but some women were wet-nurses by profession, and the Digest of Roman law even refers to a wage dispute for wet-nursing services (nutricia). The landmark known as the Columna Lactaria ("Milk Column") may have been a place where wet-nurses could be hired. It was considered admirable for upperclass women to breastfeed their own children, but unusual and old-fashioned in the Imperial era. Even women of the working classes or slaves might have their babies nursed, and the Roman-era Greek gynecologist Soranus offers detailed advice on how to choose a wet-nurse. Inscriptions such as religious dedications and epitaphs indicate that a nutrix would be proud of her profession. One even records a nutritor lactaneus, a male "milk nurse" who presumably used a bottle. Greek nurses were preferred, and the Romans believed that a baby who had a Greek nutrix could imbibe the language and grow up speaking Greek as fluently as Latin. The importance of the wet nurse to ancient Roman culture is indicated by the founding myth of Romulus and Remus, who were abandoned as infants but nursed by the she-wolf, as portrayed in the famous Capitoline Wolf bronze sculpture. The goddess Rumina was invoked among other birth and child development deities to promote the flow of breast milk.
The Islamic prophet Muhammad was wet-nursed by Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb. Islamic law or sharia specifies a permanent family-like relationship (known as rada) between children nursed by the same woman, i.e., who grew up together as youngsters. They and various specific relatives may not marry, that is, they are deemed mahram.
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 laborer. And if you were a royal wet nurse you would be honored for life.
Jane Austen mentions the practice in her novel Emma. 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. Dr Naomi Baumslag noted legendary wet-nurse Judith Waterford: "In 1831, on her 81st birthday, she could still produce breast milk. In her prime she unfailingly produced two quarts (four pints or 2.3 litres) of breast milk a day."
The English wet-nurse in Victorian England was most likely a single woman who previously gave birth to an illegitimate child, and was looking for work in a profession that glorified the single mother. English women tended to work within the home of her employer to take care of her charge, as well as working at hospitals that took in abandoned children. The wet-nurse’s own child would likely be sent out to nurse, normally brought up by the bottle, rather than being breastfed. Fildes argues that “In effect, wealthy parents frequently ‘bought’ the life of their infant for the life of another.”
Wet-nursing in England decreased in popularity during the mid-nineteenth century due to the writings of medical journalists concerning the undocumented dangers of wet-nursing. Valerie A. Fildes argued that “Britain has been lumped together with the rest of Europe in any discussion of the qualities, terms of employment and conditions of the wet nurse, and particularly the abuses of which she was supposedly guilty.”According to C.H.F. Routh, a medical journalist writing in the late 1850s in England, argued many evils of wet-nursing, such as wet-nurses were more likely to abandon their own children, there was increased mortality for children under the charge of a wet-nurse, and an increased physical and moral risk to a nursed child.While this argument was not founded in any sort of proof, the emotional arguments of medical researchers, coupled with the protests of critics of the practice slowly increased public knowledge and brought wet-nursing into obscurity, replaced by maternal breastfeeding and bottle-feeding.
Wet nurses were common for children of all social ranks in the southern United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wet nursing has sometimes been used with old or sick people who have trouble taking other nutrition. Following the widespread marketing and availability of artificial baby milk, or infant formula, wet nursing went into decline after World War II and fell out of style in the affluence of the mid-1950s. Wet nurses are no longer considered necessary in developed nations and, therefore, are no longer common.
In contemporary affluent Western societies particularly affected by the successful marketing of infant formula, the act of nursing a baby other than one's own often provokes cultural squeamishness, notably in the United States and United Kingdom. When a mother is unable to nurse her own infant, an acceptable mediated substitute is screened, pasteurized, expressed milk (or especially colostrum) donated to milk banks, analogous to blood banks, a sort of bureaucratic wet-nurse. Dr Rhonda Shaw notes that Western objections to wet-nurses are cultural:
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.
The subject of wet-nursing is becoming increasingly open for discussion. During a UNICEF goodwill trip to Sierra Leone in 2008, Mexican actress Salma Hayek decided to breast-feed a local infant in front of the accompanying film crew. The sick one-week-old baby had been born the same day but a year later than her daughter, who had not yet been weaned. Hayek later discussed on camera an anecdote of her Mexican great-grandmother spontaneously breast-feeding a hungry baby in a village.
Wet-nurses are still common in many developing countries, although the practice poses a risk of infections such as HIV. In China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, a wet-nurse may be employed in addition to a nanny as a mark of aristocracy, wealth, and high status. Additionally, a woman who wants to become pregnant may wet-nurse and rear a relative (especially a poorer one's) new-born as a mancing (Javanese language for "lure"). The mythology of Asia is full of such events. Following the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, in which contaminated infant formula poisoned thousands of babies, the salaries of wet-nurses there increased dramatically. The use of a wet-nurse is seen as a status symbol in some parts of modern China.
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