The History and Definition of Wet Nurse

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

Before the invention of infant formula and feeding bottles made wet nursing virtually obsolete in Western society, it was common practice for aristocratic women to hire 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. 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 and repair the death of infants under their care, they were often ignored and the infant mortality rate remained high.

While animal milk was the most common source of feeding 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 advent of infant formula, 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 becomes in vogue once more, mothers of infants are feeling the pressure once again to nurse. However, the uneven maternity leave 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 reports, sharing nursing responsibilities—whether by formally hiring a wet nurse or by figuring out an informal arrangement with among friends--could very well be a reasonable solution that could relieve the burden on working mothers without compromising their babies’ feeding. 

In April 2007, both TIME magazine and NBC's TODAY show covered the increased interest in wet nurses with a Los Angeles agency, Certified Household Staffing, reporting that demand had risen over the past four years despite the hefty price tag -- $1,000 a week.