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.
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?"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)
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.