Saturday, October 22, 2016



A Wet Nurse is someone who breastfeeds and cares for another woman's child.  The practice of wet nursing has been around forever and the practice continues though today. As far back as biblical times breastfeeding by another woman was common.    In the 1800s and 1900s wet nursing was required for a number of families who choose not to breastfeed or for other reasons could not breastfeed.  Newspapers of the day played up the rich mother who choose not to wet nurse and lose her shape by nursing.  But the lower level economic mothers also had reasons to hire a wet nurse.

The alternative for mothers who could not breastfeed was to hand rear the baby by way of a formulation based on cow’s milk or goat milk.  It was risky, the milk was obtained and store in unsanitary conditions and baby bottles were unsterilized.  Food preservation hadn’t advanced enough to prevent bacterial infection.  A baby hand rear was twice as liable to die as a wet nursed one. 

Those who could afford a wet nurse would have the woman come live with the family but frequently if she had a child that child could not come with the woman.  The wet nurse would have to find her own wet nurse and person to care for her child.  Some families would place the child with the wet nurse at her home and the wet nurse would handle both her child and the baby placed in her care until the child was weaned.  Ads were placed in newspapers for wet nurses

 above from the Baltimore Sun 1858

Up until the end of the 20th century it was believed the suckling child would take on the appearance of the wet nurse.  Great attention was given to the character and looks in the selection of the wet nurse of course of upmost importance was the woman should have a strong body, give good milk and have an amply supply of milk, be sympathetic (it was felt that angry women produce milk that was too warm) , be clean and tidy,.  

So what about the un-rich who may be  a mother having lactation failure, a mother dying in child birth,  or women working in factories who could not afford to quit work.  Beyond newspaper ads how were the wet nurses found for this group?  Doctors and midwives were aware of who had recently given birth and might consider being a wet nurse.  This was also a period when married woman gave birth to a child every year or two so there might be a relative nursing a baby who would consider wet nursing the baby of another relative

Finally a third group requiring wet nurses was the Foundling (baby) hospitals for infant abandonment.  Usually in larger cities where a hundred to two hundred babies would have to be nursed.  A staff of 30 to 40 wet nurses were required.  On the local scene the alms houses and charity houses also would require the occasional wet nurse
1896 ad St louis dispatch
The pay for a wet nurse would vary from about $10 a month (1905) for a baby placed in a home to be wet nursed until weaned to  $20 to $40 a month (1886) for a wet nurse to live in a well off household

In the Victorian era there was a fad of having the mother’s picture taken while breastfeeding her baby, that fad produced most of the photos in this post.

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