The History and Definition of Wet Nurse

An ancient practice resurfaces

Mother nursing baby in her breastfeeding station

Ruslan Dashinsky via Getty Images.

A wet nurse is a lactating woman who breastfeeds a child who is not her own. Once a highly organized and well-paid profession, wet nurses had all but disappeared by 1900.

Before the invention of infant formula and feeding bottles made wet nursing virtually obsolete in Western society, aristocratic women commonly hired wet nurses, as breastfeeding was seen as unfashionable. The wives of merchants, doctors, and lawyers also preferred to employ a wet nurse rather than breastfeed because it was cheaper than hiring help to run their husband's business or manage a household.

A Career for Poor Women

Wet nursing was a common career choice for poor women among the lower classes. In many cases, wet nurses were required to register and undergo medical exams.

During the Industrial Revolution, lower-income families used wet nurses as more and more women began working and were unable to breastfeed. The rural poor—peasant women—began to assume the role of wet nurses. Although laws required them to obtain a license, the laws were often ignored and the infant mortality rate remained high.

The Advent of Formula

While animal milk was the most common source for replacing human milk, it was nutritionally inferior to breast milk. Advances in science enabled researchers to analyze human milk and attempts were made to create and improve on nonhuman milk so that it could more closely approximate human milk.

In 1865 chemist Justus von Liebig patented an infant food consisting of cow's milk, wheat and malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate. The introduction of infant formula, the greater availability of animal milk, and the development of the feeding bottle reduced the need for wet nurses throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

What's Different Now?

After the rise of formula and the decline of wet nursing, the once common service has become almost taboo in much of the West. However, as breastfeeding is an increasingly acceptable practice once more, mothers of infants are feeling the pressure once again to nurse. However, uneven maternity leave benefits around the nation and the real difficulties of breastfeeding mean that some women would likely benefit from returning to the age-old tradition of wet nursing.

As The New Republic has reported, sharing nursing responsibilities—whether by formally hiring a wet nurse or by figuring out an informal arrangement among friends—could very well be a reasonable solution that could relieve the burden on working mothers without compromising their babies’ feeding.

The Sharing Economy

Not surprisingly, in this age of ridesharing and spare-room sharing, milk sharing is a phenomenon that some families are trying. Facebook groups and milk-sharing sites have appeared, and according to the practice is on the rise. Their informal poll found that one in 25 women had shared their milk, and 5 percent of families had used milk from the more regulated source of a milk bank. As the taboo slowly lifts, this age-old practice may just make a real comeback.


  • Stevens, Emily E., RN, FNP, WHNP, Ph.D., Thelma E. Patrick, RN, Ph.D., and Rita Pickler, RN, PNP, Ph.D. "A History of Infant Feeding." The Journal of Perinatal Education at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Spring 2009.