Breastfeeding: 1800s to the present

From the end of the 1700s through the middle 1800s, wet nursing—lactating woman nursing another’s child, was common—until doctors realized that wet nurses might be passing on infections such as syphilis, cholera and TB. At that point, doctors recommended that mothers breastfeed their own children.

The Industrial Revolution caused entire families to move from rural areas to cities. The cost of living in urban areas was much higher than expected. Low wages forced many women to look for employment and contribute financially to their family, making it impossible for these women to breastfeed their children. Many of the children were farmed out to poor peasant women. By law, peasant wet nurses were required to obtain a license from local authorities and to report the death of any baby in their care. The laws were ignored and created little change in the high infant mortality.

Although wet nursing continued to exist at the end of the 18th century, the biological mother was still preferred for breastfeeding and raising her children. In 1779, William Buchan, a Scottish physician, published Domestic Medicine, which showed an open distrust of wet nurses and their use of home remedies—such as opiates. Wet nurses referred to opiates as “Quietness.” Buchan wrote that the use of opiates as a sleep aid for infants was a great fault among wet nurses.

In the 19th century, artificial feeding became a passable substitute for wet nursing. Advancement in the feeding bottle and the availability of animal’s milk began to affect the use of wet nurses. By the 1900s, the wet-nursing profession had ended.

Ideas change with the times.

Wet nursing was added to the job roster of the Beverly Hills agency, Certified Household Staffing, in the early 21st century. There are an increasing number of wealthy Californian mothers, many of whom have had breast enhancements, who want wet nurses for their babies.

There is a great need for breastmilk. The number of milk-sharing networks has soared, connecting mothers who are unable to produce enough milk with those who produce an abundance of milk.

According to the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the best alternative to a mother’s milk, particularly for a fragile baby, is banked donor human milk. The milk banks collect, pool, pasteurize, and package human milk.

The first milk bank in the United States was established in 1910 in Boston, MA. Milk banking continues to grow. For a list of active milk banks see:

Research provided by:

A History of Infant Feeding, Emily E Stevens, the Journal of Perinatal Education

The return of the wet-nurse, Diana Appleyard, The Daily

The Return of Wet Nursing, Claire Gordon, AOL

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