“This is not child abuse, this is child care.”
So we heard on Good Morning America. But what did everyone else have to say about the woman named Jessica Anne Colletti who proudly shared the basics of her special infant feeding arrangement with a close friend?
She started watching her friend’s 5-month-old son when his mother went to work and he no longer tolerated the formula she’d provided for him in her absence. So she offered to nurse the baby as well as her own then-3-month-old when she was tasked with their care.
Both women had discussed and agreed to the idea and it allowed the working mother to breastfeed for 9 months. The mothers publicized their situation to raise awareness of this option that continues to work well for their families.
The mother shared a photo of her and two nurslings, one of whom is her friend Charlie Interrante’s son, on the Facebook page for Mama Bean Parenting with the caption:
“My son on the right is 16 months and my friend’s son is 18 months. I watch her son while she works and have been feeding them both for a year! So much love between these milk siblings, it’s a special bond between us all.”
And then… the internet exploded in a firestorm of hatred and disgust!
Before tackling that, let’s get our definitions straight. (For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer to these interchangeably as “wet nursing”):
Wet Nursing — the complete nursing of another’s infant, often for pay.
Cross Nursing — the occasional nursing of another’s infant while the mother continues to nurse her own child, often in a child care situation.
Here are 9 perspectives (paraphrased) seen repeated on every thread that shared this story, making it even more difficult for us to understand and appreciate the concept of wet nursing:
1. “Because breastfeeding is about sex, not maternal intimacy.”
Breastfeeding equals love plus hugs plus food plus medicine.
Like sharing an ice cream cone, but healthier. Like a hug, but closer. Like a favorite memory, except it’s reality. Like the answer to everything, when you’re young, or when you’re old enough to break it down to its most telling complexities — because it’s that good. Like the purpose of a postpartum female body, learning about mothering through the life-bearing functions of feminine parts.
Like a tool that helps guide our children into healthy, happy, comfortable beings that will inherit the rest we have to offer. Our in-built tool. In-built!!
That’s what breastfeeding is like.
Breasts do not equal sex. Breastfeeding does not equal sex plus children.
Adapted from my other post:
I empathize that it must be confusing to wrestle with an idea one has always known (“breasts are private and obscene”) and another untouched reality (“breasts nurture children”). Interestingly, though people like to say breasts should be covered because they’re “sexual,” I don’t think that’s what they genuinely believe.
Body parts that elicit an arousal response can be considered sexual by the affected person. Therein, hands, faces, feet, the small of one’s back, muscular arms, and so on may be sexualized depending whose eye beholds such things.
There’s absolutely nothing different about a breast that makes it obscene, and if anything, should be less so considering breasts are designed specifically with children in mind. So, we mustn’t throw the net of presupposition over all people who are sexually attracted to women; we mustn’t delineate this populace with the conviction that they’ll lose all control at the sight of a breast.
There’s a great fear of our sexuality in this uptight society and that fear, if not loosened, results in rigidity and black and white thinking — the kind of thinking that causes our brains to explode when we see breasts behaving as nature intended in contrast to the more usual connection to marketing beer, cars, and plastic surgery.
Our society’s hellbent-ness on making our potential for arousal a “point of purchase” certainly doesn’t make it easy to accept this. It’s okay to not know how to determine one’s own true feelings about seeing parts of the human body in various formats. We’ve all fallen prey to the trained illusion of subjectivity where it doesn’t exist. But…
Breasts Aren’t Reproductive Organs
Objectively, you may recall from anatomy class that breasts are not part of one’s genitalia/reproductive system. Can you determine how you learned to associate breasts with sex? Music videos? Family tradition? Body objectification messages in all forms of modern advertising and media? Is a breastfeeding mother the one with an inappropriate, “tasteless” problem or is it one who sees a breast with an attached baby as sexual?
Humans are the only mammal of which the female’s breasts remain enlarged after puberty, not just during pregnancy. One theory is that when our predecessors began walking upright, the breasts evolved to become a “frontal counterpart” to the buttocks. Other ideas include: breasts are also meant to act as cushions for infants’ heads; are a form of competition between females to prove maidenhood; and possibly, that noticeably present breast tissue is actually an “evolutionary flaw” (hey, nature…it happens).
Then of course, there’s the theory that breastfeeding has been so critical to the well-being of our species that nature made it possible for sisters, aunts, neighbors, even grandmothers to nurse a baby in his mother’s absence — even outside their own prime childbearing age.
2. “Because children are property, not people.”
Whenever this topic arises, I wonder if I myself would be willing to allow another mother to nurse my son. I know I’d nurse the child of a close friend in a heartbeat if she expressed the need or desire (and at least in my heart, an even greater honor than being asked to stand with a bride on her wedding day).
But how would I feel about passing my own child off to snuggle with and claim nourishment from another mother figure?
As a hypersensitive person and without any real-life wet nursing experience, I imagine I’d feel all the normal feelings intensified triply: jealousy, discomfit, strangeness, threat, confusion, sadness, defeat…
I’d probably play over and over in my head a scrolling line of text from Fiona Giles’ “Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts“ where a mother described how a stranger nursed her baby without permission and likened it to “adultery.”
Then I think about what lands a mother in a consensual, as quoted “desperate” situation like that of Colletti and Interrante.
Other hypotheticals: Maybe a mother needs to work and can’t be available for her child. Maybe she has a medical condition or is taking medication that’s contraindicated for breastfeeding. Maybe she also doesn’t respond to a pump. Maybe her child doesn’t tolerate formula. Maybe she cannot psychologically handle the intimacy of breastfeeding due to past physical traumas. Maybe she still wants the best for her child, because it’s not all about her after all.
This is a perfect example of sailing an individual child’s needs above a mother’s own. When we think of our children as property upon which to impose our own rules and regulations and alter the natural terms to satisfy their needs based on our own unresolved complexes, we too easily forget our children are people.
For some children, wet nursing may offer great benefits if the mother can handle it mentally. If not, this could cause more harm than good if she normally serves the role of the family’s emotional spine.
After thinking about it more, I realized if I could shelve my feelings of inadequacy about being unable to nurse my son, I’d ultimately feel grateful for another lovely and caring human being to give him the breastfeeding experience I couldn’t.
Because that’s what motherhood is about — making decisions for your child that may fulfill as many of his needs as possible, however that happens. Motherhood is not about the thank you’s or credit for good deeds or winning those illusory mommy war competitions. It’s simply about making the dream of a good babyhood and childhood into a reality.
When you think of it this way, the prospect of wet nursing to meet a need doesn’t seem quite as scary.
3. “Because wet nursing is just not normal.”
Understandably, many people may believe this if it’s the first time they’ve heard of such a thing. But it’s not the first time the story of mothers sharing the task of infant feeding (with their chosen method, nursing) has appeared in the news.
“The Nursing Mothers’ Association of Australia (NMAA) in a 1994 issue of their newsletter, published 16 letters from readers in a column called “Talking Point.” Every writer described her experience with cross nursing in a positive, accepting tone, some saying it was a “wonderful idea.” NMAA has no policy on wet nursing, believing it should be “an individual decision made by the mother concerned.” The published replies seem to back up Krantz and Kupper’s conclusion that cross nursing is more practiced than reported.” – La Leche League
In this article, you can read about the fascinating, far-reaching history of wet nursing throughout the ages and across the globe. Here’s the gist:
“It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that wet nursing began to fall out of fashion in the Western world. In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, mothers in newly prosperous societies found themselves with more time on their hands, some of which they chose to invest in child-rearing; they became less inclined to pass off child-related chores, including breastfeeding.
Inventions like the baby bottle and commercial formula in the early 1900s also offered alternatives to women who didn’t want to outsource the feeding of their babies but couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed.
In non-Western parts of the world, however, wet-nursing continued—creating distinct cultural structures and associations. In many parts of the Islamic world, where sisters and female friends traditionally nurse each other’s children, unrelated babies who breastfeed from the same woman enter into a special lifelong relationship as “milk kin,” and are forbidden from marrying each other.”
4. “Because wet nursing is what black slaves did.”
Yep, some commenters went there. And I’m glad, because this part of history is too important to forget. Our most recent connotations with wet nursing are painful for blacks, embarrassing and confusing for whites, and basically negative for everyone involved.
“[T]he modern black woman thinks of the idea of being a nurse or even of the notion of breastfeeding in general as evoking a visceral reaction akin to swallowing spoiled milk. Yet, the white ideal of breastfeeding evokes nostalgia, especially when it concerns black nursemaids—so much so that a “mammy” figure is used to sell syrup bottles in the twenty-first century. For the black woman, being subjected to the cruel, inhumane job of being a nursemaid still causes posttraumatic stress disorder so much so that it affects their quality of life…
Many black women don’t want to nurse their own children today. Perhaps, it’s because some women’s grandmothers still feel traumatized remembering the treatment of wet nurses.” – Black Then
However the difference is that, for the oppressed populace, wet nursing was an expected part of forced servitude for slaves working on plantations. Tragically, they were given no choice in the matter of whether to tend to their own children or to invest their hard-earned breast milk in the bodies of their masters’ babies. Their own offspring often died as a result of the forced maternal neglect.
Modern day wet nursing is typically an agreement reached by mutual consent of both mothers involved as well as the clear willingness, enthusiasm, and need of the nursling. To brand wet nursing as “a black slave thing” is not only ignorant but horrifically insensitive to the suffering faced by mothers like the one pictured below.
5. “Because there are no benefits to wet nursing.”
La Leche League made a few points about the possible downsides of modern day wet nursing:
“Fear of infection has caused mothers who once shared breastfeeding in a child care situation to no longer consider cross nursing as an option.
The mother who is cross nursing may experience a reduced supply of milk for her own baby. Nursing another baby during the day may leave the cross nursing mother with an inadequate amount of milk for her own baby later in the day. Various factors including the ages of the two babies and the regularity of the cross nursing schedule would affect whether or not the cross nursing mother’s milk supply would build up to meet the needs of both babies.
Babies of different ages require a specific composition of milk. Milk from the baby’s own mother will provide the exact make-up the infant needs; another mother whose baby is not the same age may not provide the same components.
A difference in the let down, either in the timing or in the forcefulness, can confuse and frustrate an infant. In many cases, a baby will refuse to nurse from a cross nursing mother/ child care provider, especially if the baby is four months or older.”
But what about the potential benefits and most common uses for this practice?
“Most situations in which cross nursing is practiced are private arrangements made by the mothers involved. Day care or babysitting seem to be the most common conditions in which it is used.
Cross nursing or wet nursing has also been used when hospitalization of the mother is necessary. This is especially true in an emergency when the mother is unable to nurse or the effects on the infant of the mother’s prescribed medication dictates temporary weaning.
Cross nursing can also be used to stimulate a mother’s milk supply when her own baby cannot. This might be considered when the mother has a premature or physically handicapped baby.
Cross nursing has also been used to stimulate the milk production of an adoptive mother. When an adoptive mother and a fully lactating mother nurse each other’s infants, the adoptive mother’s milk supply is stimulated by an experienced nursing baby and the adoptive baby learns how to nurse at the breast.”
6. “Because formula is the next best alternative option, not wet nursing.”
The following breast milk alternatives were recommended for mothers who cannot or will not breastfeed, in this order of most to least preferred (UNICEF, WHO, UNESCO: Facts for Life: A Communication Challenge, 1989):
- The mother’s own expressed milk
- Breast milk from a wet-nurse or milk bank
- Breast milk substitute (formula) fed with a cup
How about children who are past the age of one and no longer able to drink infant formula or most likely have started solid foods to complement breast milk? There are many reasons why children need and want to breastfeed past the age of one as breast milk doesn’t only serve a nutritional purpose (read about that here)…. though breast milk is still plenty healthy after one year.
Think about it -– does an apple lose it’s nutritional worth when you eat it as a 40-year old as opposed to a 20-year old? The apple tree is inherently capable of producing perfectly nutritious fruits year after year no matter how worn it’s bark.
Nutritional Value for Older Children
This study discovered that women who breastfed longer than one year made significantly fattier (more caloric) milk than those who breastfed less than six months, and milk sugar declines with duration of nursing too. As I mentioned before, it’s not all about nutrition -– even some of breast milk’s most important immune properties actually increase in the second year.
In the second year (12-23 months), about 15 ounces of breast milk provides*:
- 29% of energy requirements
- 43% of protein requirements
- 36% of calcium requirements
- 75% of vitamin A requirements
- 76% of folate requirements
- 94% of vitamin B12 requirements
- 60% of vitamin C requirements (*Dewey 2001)
“Human milk expressed by mothers who have been lactating for >1 year has significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant.” – Mandel 2005
“In a study of 250 toddlers in western Kenya, breastmilk provided, on average, 32% of the child’s total energy intake. “Breast milk made an important contribution to the fat and vitamin A intakes of toddlers in this community.” – Onyango 2002
“Breast milk continues to provide substantial amounts of key nutrients well beyond the first year of life, especially protein, fat, and most vitamins.” – Dewey 2001
“Studies done in rural Bangladesh have shown that breastmilk continues to be an important source of vitamin A in the second and third year of life.” – Persson 1998
Per the 2012 Americam Academy of Pediatrics policy statement “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk”:
“Breastfeeding and human milk are the normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition. Given the documented short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.”
The AAP recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.“
7. “Because wet nursing is unsanitary and unhygienic.”
If we don’t generally think it’s “gross,” “disturbing,” and “unacceptable” for women to offer their wombs for surrogate pregnancy, I wonder why these are the immediate reactions when it comes to surrogate feeding?
Breast milk is a food, not a human waste product such as urine, sweat, or spit.
One of the main concerns about wet nursing is the possible transmission of infectious diseases or pollutants from a mother who engages in a toxic lifestyle. A valid worry of course, but the vast majority of mothers are healthy enough to safely feed infants with their breast milk.
Just as it’s wise to carefully choose a breast milk donor with the same screening process you’d use for any of your child’s medicines or items of consumption, the same level of thought must be given to the selection of a wet nurse.
Learn about the contraindications to nursing/giving breast milk here.
So then what IS breast milk, really? Learn more about it:
8. “Because wet nursing doesn’t make sense! But drinking breast milk from cows… that’s logical.”
Cow milk is the breast milk of a species that needs its young to gain weight expeditiously and, secondarily, to develop a brain that has the capacity to understand life within the limits of a cud-chewing heifer.
Human milk is designed to rapidly develop the brain first because it’s in the best interest of our species’ chance for survival; followed then by stable weight gain rather than a focus on rapid gain, which is not ideal for human babies.
Read more about cow milk during infancy: Moo Milk vs. Mom’s Milk
“Milk from cows and goats is quite different in composition than human breast milk and, therefore, should not be fed to human infants.” – Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
9. “Because women aren’t to be trusted.”
What if the wet nurse forms a bond with the child? Falls in love with him as if he was her own? Gets a crazy idea like abducting him and running away with her newfound love-baby never to be seen again?
The insane stuff breastfeeders do, though…
And all women really!
Never trust a woman who ovulates on time or gives her breast milk away for free. The former will take your husband and the latter will take your baby.