An Earthy Mother sharing her experiences in today's world....

Monday, April 5, 2010

On being a wetnurse.....

I've always been in childcare, from my beginnings as a babysitter in my early teens until now. I have always loved children- loved their innocence, loved their simplicity, loved their exuberance and acceptance and fearlessness.

I had read about women who breastfed other babies- I always considered it sort of peculiar. It made sense, but surely formula is just as good, right? Wrong.

When I became a mother, I continued to work privately, looking after children in their own homes. I couldn't tolerate the factory-style care in child care centres, where basic needs were met but there was little time for nurture, love, care or individuality. I loved forming a bond with the children I cared for, and this is difficult to do when you have 4 children under 18 months in your care, which is common in child care.

After my son was born, I continued to work, but I did not wet nurse. It was never something which entered my consciousness- why would I physically breastfeed someone else's child? I had a huge supply though, and after my daughter was born and I tandem fed my children, I realised I was capable of producing a lot more milk than most women. I sprayed milk everywhere whenever let down happened. I soaked through towels every night. I could hold a cup over my nipple while feeding only one babe, and I could easy catch 250ml pouring out. Forget breastpads, I soaked a hand towel on a regular basis.

When my freezer filled up with milk, I realised I should donate breastmilk or it would be going to waste (I went and had blood tests and got a clean bill of health first). So I gave it away whenever I could to the people around me who needed it. I donated to a woman interstate who had hypoplastic breasts. I donated when a woman I know was admitted to hospital suddenly and they could not admit her 3 months old baby- she was so dehydrated she was unable to make enough either. I donated to a friend in anticipation of her premature baby being born 8 weeks early so her premmie didn't have to be exposed to formula in NICU. I donated to a woman I didn't know a few suburbs away who has a tiny supply- she has since become my friend. I was in awe of my breasts- these amazing mammaries which could feed more than just my babies.

The first baby I wetnursed was the child I was donating to a few suburbs away; she came to collect the litres of milk I had stored for her, and he was hungry. She asked if I would feed him instead of using some of the frozen milk- so I did. It wasn't strange- it felt really normal, really natural. It felt right. I was starting to see just how beneficial this would be, and wondering why more women didn't do it. So many women are using formula to complement their baby's breastmilk- why not use donated breastmilk, or have another woman cross-nurse your baby?


I started work with a new family one day a week, and the mother was the first to broach the subject. I hadn't considered it before this- I had felt the urge, the instinct, to open my top when holding a crying baby, but I had never been asked to breastfeed someone else's baby directly. She was very casual about it, and I agreed. I began offering it to him in the middle of the day before his sleep, but he refused. One day he was upset, so I put him in a Mei Tai and he snuggled up to my chest. After a few minutes, he licked my cleavage. I whipped out my breast and left it there for him to access, and after a few minutes he latched on and drank deeply, falling asleep in minutes. Success! The next few times he smiled at my breast for a while first, as if discerning the friendliness of my nipple, before latching on and heartily drinking. Before long, he was actively asking for a breastfeed, coming up to my shyly and gently pulling on the neckline of my top. Whenever my daughter was breastfeeeding, so was he- soon he was having 3 breastfeeds a day.It felt lovely to be able to give this little person the perfect milk for him. (That is the prince himself, shown at right.)


I have now started wetnursing with a new family who have a 6 month old baby. I was hired because of my babywearing experience, childcare experience and attachment parenting ideas. The mother had never considered I would wetnurse her baby, but when she spoke to my reference (who is the same woman who encouraged me to wetnurse), she told her about the breastfeeding relationship I have with her child. She was quite shocked- wetnursing is now something alien to our society, whereas 100 years ago it was common practice. When I attended my interview, she discussed it with me. At first, she said she was quite 'weirded out' by the idea of me breastfeeding another person's child. It is a challenging thing to wrap your mind around in our homogenised society. She thought wetnursing was a bit strange. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. If her baby was distressed, I could comfort him in a way that holding and rocking never could. Expressing enough wasn't as much of an issue. If he wanted more milk than she had left, he has a fresh supply. Just because his mother had to return to work doesn't mean he misses out on breastfeeding while she is gone. Her comfort zone was challenged, her preconceived ideas about what was normal were questioned, and she came out the other side with a totally different view.

Society used to condone wetnursing- it was used in the case of ill women, mothers who died in childbirth, women without supply, the rich, the poor and everyone in between. Sisters, mothers, aunts, even grandmothers breastfed babies who needed to be fed. In ancient cultures, it was common to breastfeed any child you knew who needed to be fed. In indigenous tribes babies are fed by the village- not only does this help share the burden of childrearing, but it also gives children access to more antibodies than their mothers could ever provide alone. Yet our society has become one of people being afraid of others, of disconnection, of isolation. Our world is becoming more detached- we are encouraged to move our babies away from us, give our babies alternatives to nature, feed our children genetically modified foods and clean our houses with toxic chemicals. Our society is moving further and further away from being human, from connecting with nature and each other.

All children should be breastfed for a minimum of 2 years. When you look at the suggestions from the World Health organisation, you see that even they recommend wetnurses.

"For those few health situations where infants cannot, or should not, be breastfed, the choice of the best alternative – expressed breast milk from an infant’s own mother, breast milk from a healthy wet-nurse or a human-milk bank, or a breast-milk substitute fed with a cup, which is a safer method than a feeding bottle and teat – depends on individual circumstances." (W.H.O, http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2003/9241562218.pdf)
Yet we live in a society where women would rather buy modified, sugared, powdered cow's milk to feed their babies because they simply don't consider there might be women out there opening their arms and their nursing bras to babies who need to be away from their mothers or who are born to mothers who cannot breastfeed. Women would rather feed their babies modified inferior milk from an unhappy, antibiotic-tainted cow than put out the call for breastmilk donors or a wet nurse. It isn't even considered an option. Other people's breastmilk is considered strange, gross, a bodily fluid. Our breastmilk is fine, but other people's breastmilk is just too foreign for many women to even consider. Why is this so? If a woman has had testing done, and eats a healthy diet, why wouldn't you choose her milk over that of a cow? With everything we know about how superior breastmilk is to any alternatives, why are so many women still turning to formula?

When I look at these two options if I can't breastfeed my child, I know which one I would choose.




If you have cross-nursed or wetnursed a baby, please feel free to share your story.

28 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story :) Congratulations on pushing the boundaries of our modern society :) I recently wet nursed a friends baby for the first time and was quite surprised, as you said, it wasnt weird at all. It felt normal, natural. It felt so wonderful to be able to help out a distressed little baby.

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  2. I think it's great too, my little one was wet nursed at 5 months just as a once off when i had a 3 hour exam to do for uni, it was great, luckily i didn't give him formula too cause i found out a month later he's allergic to dairy so if i had of given him a bottle of forumla while i couldn't feed him he could very well have ended up very sick or die due to anaphylaxis. If a friend needed i would happily wetnurse their baby too.

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  3. Awesome experience. I wish it were happening like it should.
    I would allow someone I trusted to nurse my child and I would do the same for such a person.

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  4. Beautiful story, thanks for sharing ;)
    Here's mine...

    http://rainbowjenjen.blogspot.com/2010/01/milk-siblings-for-jackjack.html

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  5. Thanks for sharing your story! I am part of a local parenting group. About 6 months ago one of our mamas (and her 2 year old son) died in a car crash, leaving behind her husband and 4 month old exclusively BFd baby. Her husband knew how important it was to his wife that her baby was breastfed and so he put out a call for donors. Within a week they had so many offers they had to assign someone to be in charge of coordinating it all. I think they ended up with over 40 women. At first many went to their house and wetnursed, but eventually they weaned him to a bottle (of donated milk) so that the father could do most of the "work". It's wonderful to know there are many women out there willing and able to help in these kinds of situations.

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  6. Yay! I would happily wetnurse for someone. I would love to be able to provide this kind of nurturing for a baby that needed it and still be able to help support my family. I've donated breastmilk to a woman who was dying of cancer. Her doctor was actually tracking the good it was doing her. Do you think wetnursing will make a comeback as a job?

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  7. I cared for a breastfed baby from 4 months-10 months as the momma HAD to go back to work. I nursed her a handful of times during traumas (normal baby stuff), and always felt fine doing it! I know the other momma was glad her baby had some way to be comforted while she couldn't be there, and I was glad to be able to comfort an upset baby as well! And it taught my then-2 year old a great lesson in sharing :)

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  8. I've only cross nursed a couple times, but it is something I grew up with thinking is normal as my step-mom and our neighbor intentionally cross-nursed their children. It makes SO much more sense!

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  9. I have a g'friend who had a surrogate baby and wanted breast milk. I lived a long way away but happened to be flying in for a visit when her baby was 1 week old. I was able to bring with me in the plane, a small cartoon of colostrum I had expressed pre-labour and some breast milk to help give her baby a richer start to life. I felt proud to do it for them and my friend was very grateful. Our daughters share something very special now, I feel apart of them.

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  10. Loved reading this! I had so much milk, and have always said I must have been a wet nurse in a past life. I took care of one little guy who was bottle fed and he would absolutely refuse his bottle and then nuzzle into my (clothed) chest and look at me expectantly. This was an infant who had never nursed! It is so natural and instinctive, and I'm sure he could smell my milk. I was so tempted to nurse him but didn't want to without asking his mama and didn't feel comfortable asking.

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  11. I am in "kellilee"s mom's group. While I've never been successful with a pump, I was happy to go nurse the baby. It was an amazing experience, sitting in a friend's home, a big group of mamas remembering his mama, while we all nursed him and shared snuggles.

    I've also put out the call, a couple of times, to find new donors. I also go around and collect extra milk for him, when needed. We have a few current donors that aren't as close to baby, so I pick up milk and take it to Dad when I'm going into town.

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  12. Oh man, I meant to share a link. I hope this is okay. http://www.blurb.com/books/1021637 is a book a friend of ours did. It is dedicated to the mom mentioned above. It is truly beautiful!

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  13. Bravo to you! What a great story. Funny thing, a few nights I dreamt of wet nursing my friends' babies while I was nursing my own. I was surprised how many of them thought it was sweet that I dreamt such a thing when I told them.

    I think it's sad that today so few people have even HEARD of the term "wetnursing".

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  14. My Great-Grandma wetnursed the neighborhood children that she occasionally cared for. I also know a few moms who have cross-nursed. A few months ago, I also enjoyed reading "The Wet Nurse's Tale" by Erica Eisdorfer. (Fictional account of a 19th century wetnurse.) So yeah, I'm with you! ;-)

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  15. I'm so delighted to read your blog. I would like to wet nurse children in my care. (I'm currently tandem nursing, but at some point, I'd like to nurse/baby-wear a young infant.)

    I have been wondering how to find clients for wet nursing and reading your blog coincides with my assumption that it is more likely to be a natural development in a child-care relationship than to be something that parents are seeking out specifically.

    Where do you live? (In what State?)

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  16. What a lovely inspiring story! I have donated milk to a local milk bank myself, so the concept is not foreign to me at all. I live in South Africa, where wetnursing is seen as normal in some parts of society (but not others!). Unfortunately, because of the high prevalence of HIV, it is now not recommended to wetnurse. I think wetnursing is a wonderful thing to do, if both parties are fully aware of the risks involved - a clean bill of health at the start is no guarantee that one doesn't contract anything during the course of wetnursing. To reduce the risk of transmission of any diseases (it's not just HIV that passes into breastmilk), the alternative for me would be to pasteurize the milk. There are methods that don't destroy the goodness of the milk but eradicate pathogens. New methods have been developed here in SA where one needs only a peanut butter jar and a small cooking pot.
    But overall: a lovely story about the goodness of breastmilk and how babies know what is best for them. If people think it is freaky - just show them a picture of a baby latched onto a cow's udder!

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  17. I was part of a cross nursing community, where my son chose not to feed from the other Muma's but I fed 3 girls.
    This is our story...
    http://rainbowjenjen.blogspot.com/2010/01/milk-siblings-for-jackjack.html
    Unfortunately, we got a lot of hatred for it, and this is insight into that...
    http://rainbowjenjen.blogspot.com/2010/02/tanya.html
    Further sadness is that the two other Muma's are not part of our lives anymore, therefore ending any cross-nursing in my world at the moment.

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  18. Thankyou everyone for sharing your experiences! I am sure there are informal arrangements all over the world where women feed the children in their care; I consider some people imagine it's something to be kept secret. If only more women were open- and proud!- of their abundant supply and capacity to breastfeed other people's children.

    Naomi, I am in Victoria. I agree with your idea that it is a natural development in a child care relationship; I think the problem is that it simply doesn't enter the consciousness of most women. We need it to be out there as an option.

    Rainbow JenJen, I am sorry to hear you are no longer in contact with the 'other Sarah's'. I know Sazz vaguely in that I have bumped into her on a few occasions and 'knew' her on JB when I used to frequent there. I hope you can rebuild your friendship.

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  19. So true, that we are turning away becoming more detached, going away from the natural.
    I have always been intrigued with wetnursing. I have only fed one other baby and that was such a great experience. To give to a baby who needed a good feed, his Mum exhausted and father so grateful that really was a small act but so meaningful.
    I struggle to express so haven't been able to share more.

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  20. Awesome blog. Thanks for sharing. I've cross-nursed 2 different friends' babies, in a pinch, when babysitting them and mom was unexpectedly delayed and their pumped milk wasn't going to tide their LOs over.

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  21. This is so beautifully written and well said! I couldn't agree with you more. Bravo! If only I could breakdown the walls of weirdness in my circle I would do the same!

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  22. My heart hopes my future is so filled with attached joyous life, like yours.

    I long to become a mother, oh in good time.

    I'm in love with your blog.

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  23. excellent post! i am another mama whose great grandma wet nursed, it's in my blood. i have only had a chance to nurse friends' babies on rare occasions (friends who welcomed this wholeheartedly! yay!) and then to donate a couple thousand ounces of frozen milk to a little girl who was adopted and couldn't digest formula. i'm just so happy to see the idea isn't totally dead, and instead is being celebrated even if it's only in a few pockets of the world still. great to read this!

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  24. I love this post, i have a friend whose baby was born premie (before my son or I would have started giving them milk from jump) and has had many surgeries since. most recently her lymph nodes were nicked during a heart surgery and she can not process any type of fat for 6 weeks. i have offered both my son's suckling skills to keep moms milk up and myself to help her get enough after she heels. so far they are both doing well, mom gets to pump with baby in her lap so her supply isn't dwindling and i hope it stays that way, but one day i hope to wet nurse... or nurse an adopted baby.

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  25. Love this post! Given the right situation and time, I would definitely be open to this!

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  26. My mother and her sisters passed their babies around whenever they were together.

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  27. I enjoyed reading your blog ~ thanks for posting such useful content./Nice article and great photos. Very nicely done!



    Child Care Centres Victoria

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  28. Hi! I know this post was from over a year ago. But I'm a reporter, and I'm working on a story about wet nursing and cross-nursing, and I'm looking for women who might tell me their experiences. Would you be interested, or know someone who would be? Thanks!
    - Claire Gordon, claire.gordon@teamaol.com

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