William Hogarth’s design for the Foundling Hospital’s coat of arms, sketched in 1747, contains four figures and the word HELP on a banner along the bottom. There is a baby in the centre, reaching up, Britannia on the right holding a shield and a Lamb standing on a plinth at the top. On the left, is a woman depicting Nature with her head covered. She has around eight breasts on her bare chest. It made me look twice when I first saw it. Why so many? But, then, I realised that the babies who were left at the Hospital were fed by wet nurses until they were around three years old. Nurtured in the natural way. And it wasn’t only the foundlings who were saved by another woman’s milk in the 18th century, wealthy women and the infirm throughout history have given their babies to others to feed. Until the 20th century and the advent of proper infant formula, wet nursing was a respected and relatively common form of employment.
About twenty years ago, I was sitting in a pub in Edinburgh with a group of friends when one of them told me that he’d been breast-fed by his mother’s best friend when she looked after him as a small baby. He seemed relaxed, if a little bemused, with this information and I tried to cover up my surprise and shrugged my shoulders, liberal throughout. I thought about it again when I had my own children and even considered asking if I might try to breast-feed a friend’s baby, but found that when it came to it, the words wouldn’t come out. It was as if I were asking to kiss their partner on the lips. And it’s not just me that finds the concept of attaching a child that isn’t my own onto my breast a little intimate, complex and just a bit weird. Over the last few years the British press occasionally run shock stories about women doing it, about it becoming fashionable again or a celebrity who said she would. How have we come to find an act that was commonplace for at least three millennia quite so startling? Other cultures aren’t so complicated about it.
Although it’s impossible to say when the practice of wet nursing began, it started out of need and then gradually turned into an alternative of choice from 950BC. There is evidence that it was used in Ancient Israel, Greece and Egypt. There are wet nurses cited in the Bible. And between 300BC and 400AD, in the Roman Empire, there were written contracts for female slaves to feed abandoned infants, purchased cheaply by the wealthy as future slaves. They detailed the duration of feeding – three years, clothing supplies, lamp oil and payment. There is much written by doctors up to the middle ages about the choice of a good nurse with the right consistency of milk – it oughtn’t to stick to the fingernail or be so watery that it ran all over it. According to the Roman physician, Oribasius, the ideal woman to feed your child was between 25 – 35 years of age and had recently delivered a male infant. It was vital that she did a certain amount of upper body exercise like weaving or churning to keep the flow of milk going. According to the 13th century Franciscan friar, Bartholomeus Anglicus, the wet nurse rejoices “with a boy when it rejoices and weeps with him when he weeps, just like a mother.”
From the middle ages, there was a growing body of dissent to the idea of nursing another’s child. Churches were filled with beautiful paintings of the saintly Virgin Mary in blue, the perfect mother, looking down with love at the child Jesus in the crook of her arm, surrounded by shimmering gold. Some doctors feared that the very nature, the character, of the nurse could be transmitted to the infant through her milk. And, even more of an issue: wouldn’t the child love the wet nurse, who nurtured it and kept it alive during those first years, over the natural mother? In the 1777 painting, Farewell to the Wet Nurse, by Etienne Aubry, the child leans fearfully towards the nurse as it’s lifted into its mother’s arms, face blotchy with tears. Mother and child were effectively strangers. The French King, Louis XIV was never separated from his wet nurse, Pierette Dufour. She continued to wake him with a kiss into adulthood and was ennobled for her “good milk”. And the practice remained popular until the 19th century, especially amongst the aristocracy, where it was considered unfashionable and inhibiting to nurse one’s own child. Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, caused quite a scandal by insisting on feeding her own children.
And amongst all of these contracts of employment and medical treatises, sitting in the nurseries of wealthy Europeans or in their dilapidated country cottages or in the sugar plantations in the US, were the women themselves. Often their own children suffered their mothers’ nursing for pay or even died. In 18th century France, poor women were getting rid of their own babies so quickly to become nurses that it became forbidden for them to feed another child until a woman’s own was nine months old. In the plantations in the US, slaves were forced to give up their babies to feed the children of their employers. These women were driven by the need for money or simply weren’t free to make a different choice. And it’s their silence that I hear now. The soft rock of their body as they look down at a child on their breast with a mother’s love or a mother’s resentment. The intimacy of it and the pain. These are the ones whose voices are lost to history; a silent, lactating army of them.
I don’t know why western opinion on wet nursing has changed so dramatically in the last hundred years. I suppose that removing the need for it with bottles, sterilisation and formula has changed the argument. I suspect that the vast majority of women who breast-fed other women’s children only did so because they had few other options, or none.
Many of the facts in this blog come from a paper in the US Journal of Perinatal Education, Spring 2009, by Stevens, Patrick and Pickler – A History of Infant Feeding