The Return Of Wet Nursing

wet nursing baby milk bottleEmily recently graduated college with a bachelors in mathematics. She hoped to land a job in actuarial science, but her life plan has hit a few snags. First, she fell in love and got married. Then, she got pregnant. Now as a 23-year-old with a 4-month-old baby, she has a new career goal, at least for the short term: wet nursing.

While breast-feeding her own child, Emily became convinced of the matchless value of a mother's milk. "There might be some people out there who feel the same way, and who can't produce enough breast milk," she thought. "This might be a need I don't realize is out there."

The need for breast milk is out there, in a big way. Mother-to-mother milk-sharing networks, like Eats on Feets, MilkShare and Human Milk 4 Human Babies, have exploded in the last 18 months, connecting mothers who can't produce enough with mothers who produce too much. Milk banks, which collect, pool, pasteurize and package human milk, are desperately appealing for more donations to meet the soaring demand.

Wet nursing is a growing industry too, but a mostly invisible one. Emily, like most of the other women interviewed for this article, requested that we leave out her last name. After all, the idea of breastfeeding another woman's child for money makes many uncomfortable. But not Emily, who within a few hours applied and joined the over 1,000 women on Certified Household Staffing's fast-expanding wet nurse registry. Certified Household Staffing is an Los Angeles-based agency that provides for almost every imaginable domestic need. Just over 10 years ago, wet nursing was added to the roster.

Most wet nurses spend at least a year living with the family that's employing them, according to Robert Feinstock, the managing director of Certified Household Staffing. After all, babies need to be fed every few hours, day and night.

"It's very tiring," he says. "The nursing mom is walking around in a daze half the time. She's not getting sleep."

For her trouble, the wet nurse receives an average of $1,000 a week. Like most families who can afford to employ domestic help, there's a good chance that the parents have pretty demanding careers. "When you see a woman out with a celebrity and her children, many times that's not a nanny," says Feinstock. "We're in Hollywood, we deal with a lot of people who are known throughout the world."

The Return Of The Breast

The rise of wet nursing is a testament to our newfound, or rather re-found, appreciation of breastfeeding. Doctors and formula makers had were so successful at convincing new mothers that bottle-feeding was the modern, convenient, and healthy option that by the mid-1950s, only one in five babies ever latched their mother's breast at all.

But cascades of research in the last few decades has led to cascades of initiatives to put the mammary back in the human mammal. The number of breastfed babies has been creeping up every year since 2007, when the U.S. government began tracking it. But at six months, only 15 percent were fed only breast milk, which is what the World Health Organization, UNICEF, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American College of Nurse-Midwives all recommend.

Yet feeding a baby breast milk for six months is a challenge, especially when only half of working mothers in this country get any paid maternity leave, and breastfeeding publicly can draw stares, harassment and even arrest. Since formula was cheap and plentiful by the time women entered the workplace, offices didn't need to adapt to babies or breastfeeding, and neither did shopping malls, restaurants, buses, parks, you name it. Nothing can mash the morale of new mothers quite like telling them something they can't do is critical to their babies' health.

"The social pressures, the moral pressures on mothers, in the name of these so-called health benefits is to a degree that is absurd," says Linda Blum, the author of a book on the ideology of breastfeeding. "Mothers feel tremendous guilt."

Many women, for medical reasons, find breastfeeding impossible, period. That was the case for one woman, a gynecologist living in California. Unable to produce enough milk, but strongly opposed to formula, she hired a wet nurse through Certified Household Staffing. The woman lived with her and her young daughter for almost two years.

"I was lucky. Really lucky," she says. "She was an amazing person."

The "Ick" Factor

For all our reverence of breast milk today, our feelings about the act of breastfeeding are decidedly more mixed. "Breasts are so highly sexualized, once they're used for their intended purpose, it seems odd to people," says Janet Golden the author of "A Social History of Wet Nursing in America." Breastfeeding in public fell under most state's "indecent exposure" laws until the past decade, and Facebook still removes photos of mothers nursing because of concerns about obscenity.

When those breasts are feeding another person's baby, those sexual connotations get all the more muddled. "A lot of people are like: Ewww, I don't want to give my baby somebody else's milk,' " says Ellen Steinberg, an L.A.-based lactation consultant. "But you're giving a baby some cow's milk, as opposed to some human milk, which isn't even species-specific for the baby."

Even medical professionals are squeamish about these practices. The Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly advise against this kind of unregulated milk sharing. They worry about transmitted diseases, and recommend milk banks instead, even though pasteurization strips the milk of some of its benefits.

Mothers are usually pretty rigorous about feeding their babies milk free of blood-borne pathogens. Certified Household Staffing ensures that all its wet nurses are screened, and Emily for one will request that the baby is screened as well. Most milk-sharing mothers ask for some proof-of-health, and are free to pasteurize the donation at home.

A wet nurse can even have a healthier lifestyle than the mother herself, if she so desires: no drinking, no smoking, no preservatives, no meds. "I'm gluten-free and a vegetarian, mostly," says Tiona, who recently signed onto the wet nurse registry, after hormones caused her body to start lactating spontaneously. "I cheat on Thanksgiving," she admits, but her careful diet the rest of the year might be a perk for some potential employers.

Medical professionals and those in the milk banking business still won't budge. "We're not a part of wet nursing or casual sharing of milk, nor do we support it," says Jean Drulis, the president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. "Parents should know that human milk is tops. The best gift you can give. And human donor milk is second."

Milk banking, however, isn't a realistic solution for most mothers. The majority of the limited stock in America's 11 milk banks goes to the sick and premature babies who need it most. If you were to get a prescription for milk from a milk bank, to feed your infant at home, your insurance probably wouldn't cover it. And at $4.50 an ounce, feeding a 4-to-6-month-old baby for three months could cost over $12,000.

A Modern Take On An Old Trade

Wet nurses today are a far cry from your 18th or 19th century wet nurse, who was usually working class, and "morally ruined" by a baby out of wedlock. With few other options, these women would sell their nursing services to a wealthy family, and abandon their own children at an institution or worse.

"They were essentially condemning their baby to death," says Golden. "It was trading the life of a poor infant for a wealthy one."

But while most mothers hire a wet nurse out of need, many women say they pursue wet nursing out of love. When Seemoy Hugh became a baby nurse, a specialist in newborn care, just like her mother and sisters, she said that she "found that to be my true calling." Before that point, she studied English at college, met her husband while serving in the military, became certified as a financial analyst, and got a job as a teacher. She recently joined the wet nurse registry.

"I've seen how hard it is for some parents," said Tiona, who also has years of experience working with children. "Now I can help people at the time they're born with something that will affect them for the rest of their lives."

The family that employs Tiona will have to be in a reasonable radius of her Massachusetts college, however. 19-year-old Tiona has other obligations, like earning her teaching degree, and her a cappella group.

"It's not like it would be the lower class serving the upper class," said Emily. If she had to move into the family's home, her baby, and husband, would be coming with her.

The Mother-Baby Bonds

Some researchers see wet nursing as a glorified breast pump, a Band-Aid that fails to address the underlying problem: How difficult it is for women to breastfeed the medically recommended amount.

While breastfeeding is "a lot, lot, lot better than formula," according to Mary Renfrew, the director of the Mother and Infant Research Unit at the University of York, and co-author of numerous books on breastfeeding, "it is still diminishing breastfeeding to a product, rather than a relationship. It's still driving women's lives to fit a pattern we demand of them."

But many wet nurses feel like they're uprooting the pattern. For Hugh, breastfeeding another child is just a natural extension of her baby nursing. "The only thing that I would be doing differently is allowing the child to latch on," she says.

Wet nursing makes many uncomfortable, because it tramples on the sacred idea of an exclusive mother-baby bond, according to Virginia Thorley, a lactation consultant and medical historian. But it also creates new relationships. The California gynecologist mentioned earlier became good friends with her wet nurse, who still comes to visit once a month. She calls her "the second mommy."

Wet nursing is, in small part, a return to the "it takes a village to raise a child" mantra, and harks to the "milk kinship" of Islamic culture. Like the godparent tradition in the West, wet nursing made sure two families were invested in a baby's lifelong welfare.

Like the breastfeeding flash mobbers across the UK, or the few desperate moms who posted for milk on Facebook and launched a community milk-sharing movement, or the women who cross-nurse behind closed doors, wet nurses are reimagining how breastfeeding can fit into a world where it is difficult, and sometimes impossible. That involves some serious reshuffling of how we understand families, labor relations, and women's bodies. And that has rarely been done without a little bit of "ick."

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