views updated Jun 08 2018


A wet nurse is a woman who breast-feeds a child that is not her biological child. Although specific wet-nursing practices differed among countries from the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries, diverse customs produced largely identical results. Across space and time, maternal nursing produced the lowest infant death rates while wet-nursing prompted significantly higher infant mortality.

Wet-Nursing in France

Wet-nursing was a particularly entrenched cultural phenomenon in France, where the wealthy sent their infants to the countryside to be suckled for several years by peasant women. A high death rate was common among these babies, probably due to neglect. One typical seventeenth-century father reported that only three of his thirteen wet-nursed children survived more than a few years.

By the eighteenth century the custom of sending babies away to be wet-nursed had crossed class lines, as economic conditions forced even the urban working class to place their babies with rural families for up to four years. Workers' wages were so low during this era, and rents so high, that even mothers with infants had to work. Although working women were by no means novel in France, they posed a unique problem in an urban setting. No longer able to keep their infants at their sides as they toiled, working-class urban mothers began to send their babies to the countryside to be cared for by women even poorer than themselves. The custom was so pervasive among all classes that cities like Paris and Lyon literally became cities without babies.

As demand burgeoned, the cost of hiring a wet nurse soared while the quality of care plummeted. Upper-class families responded to Enlightenment critiques of the custom and its concomitant dangers not by ending the practice, but by bringing wet nurses into their homes to closely supervise them. Poor working families, on the other hand, could only afford the cheapest wet nurses, who lived at everincreasing distances. Despite the relatively low cost, working-class families often found themselves in arrears to the wet nurse. Infants paid the price.

Given the ubiquitous demand for the service and the high infant mortality the practice engendered, wet-nursing became a publicly organized venture during the second half of the eighteenth century. As foundling hospitals, wet-nurse bureaus (employment agencies for wet nurses), and the working poor competed for fewer and more expensive nurses, Parisian police authorities stepped in to combine the four existing wet-nurse bureaus into a municipal Bureau of Wet Nurses, which guaranteed wet nurses a minimum wage. The Bureau served a dual function: it assured parents an adequate supply of wet nurses and it persuaded nurses not to neglect their charges by advancing them their monthly salary. The Bureau, and not the wet nurse, then collected the wet nurses' wages from infants' fathers.

The Bureau of Wet Nurses was one of the few institutions to survive the French Revolution. Bureau records indicate that of the 66,259 nurslings placed between 1770 and 1776, 31 percent died while in wet nurses' care, a considerably lower rate of infant mortality than wet-nursed infants had suffered previously. Until its demise in 1876, the Bureau of Wet Nurses of the City of Paris provided an alternative both to the inferior service offered by private wet-nurse bureaus and the expense of public charities caring for foundlings. With the passage of the Roussel Law in 1874, the supervision of wet-nursed infants became a national, rather than a municipal, responsibility. The Roussel Law mandated that every infant placed with a paid guardian outside the parents' home be registered with the state. In this way the French government was able to monitor how many children were placed with wet nurses (eighty thousand a year between 1874 and World War I) and how many of those infants died (15.1 percent).

The ubiquitous custom of wet-nursing did not wane in France until World War I. The war's tumult disrupted access to wet nurses and demonstrated to urban families, long reluctant to consider any alternative to maternal nursing other than wet-nursing, that safe, inexpensive, and easy artificial infant feeding options now existed. A decline in working mothers after World War I, passage of a law granting a monthly bonus of fifteen francs to working women if they breast-fed their babies for twelve months, the routine pasteurization of milk, and the availability of canned milk all contributed to the virtually instantaneous extinction of wetnursing in France.

Wet-Nursing in England

In other western European countries wet-nursing was not as pervasive as it was in France, but it was a significant cultural practice nonetheless. In England, wealthy married women customarily hired wet nurses while working-class mothers breast-fed their own babies. Historians have gleaned this fact from the stark difference in birth rates between English upper- and working-class women. Parish records show that wealthy women customarily gave birth annually while working-class women gave birth at considerably longer intervals, about every three years. Scholars attribute this dichotomy to the difference in upper- and lower-class infant feeding practices. Breast-feedingspecifically, exclusive, prolonged breast-feedingsuppresses ovulation and thus is a relatively reliable contraceptive.

Reasons for the class differentiation in infant feeding practice are not clear, although scholars speculate that breast-feeding was linked exclusively with the lower class as early as medieval times. This association made breast-feeding an inappropriate activity for upper-class women. The consequence of this custom for the health of well-to-do women, however, was never acknowledged. In preindustrial England, it was not uncommon for wealthy women to have as many as eighteen children during the first twenty years of their marriages. The near-constant pregnancy experienced by these women was quite debilitating, certainly more incapacitating than breast-feeding would have been. Poor women had far fewer children and were apparently the healthier for it.

Upper-class demand for wet nurses was great enough that wet-nursing constituted the major industry in some rural counties. Two types of wet nurses predominated in England: parish nurses who were on poor relief and rarely able to provide adequate care for their charges, and professional wet nurses who were well paid and well respected. This contrast is evidenced in the dual ramifications of wet-nursing in England. In seventeenth-century England, unlike France, some wet nurses were well known to the well-to-do families who hired them, as they were often former servants who had left the household to marry. In these cases wet nurses were trusted, reliable, well-paid employees and infants were properly cared for. Most wet-nursed infants, however, were raised far from their families for up to three years. In these cases there is evidence that as many as 80 percent of them died during infancy.

Wet-Nursing in Germany

In no other country did infant feeding customs vary more starkly by region then in Germany. In some areas almost all babiesregardless of class, the urban/rural divide, or the availability of animal milkwere breast-fed. In other areas the opposite was equally universal: maternal breast-feeding was nonexistent and all infants were either wet-nursed (if parents could afford that luxury) or fed pap (some combination of meat or rice broth, cows' milk, sugar, and water). One consequence of the homogeneity of infant feeding practices within regions was apparent. Although infant mortality varied between regions in Germany, it did not fluctuate among classes within regions. Demographers have argued that this uniformity in the infant death rate between socioeconomic groups within regions suggests that infant feeding method was a key, if not the key, determinant of infant morbidity and mortality during this era.

Breastfeeding in Germany was least common in the south and southeastsouthern and eastern Bavaria and Bohemiaand most common in the northwestnorthern and western Bavaria, Baden, and Hessen. Wherever Nichstillen (never breast-feeding) was practiced the custom apparently dated back to the fifteenth century, when infants were routinely fed pap instead of human milk and breast-feeding mothers were openly threatened and ridiculed.

Whether wet-nursing or pap was the predominant substitute for maternal feeding likewise depended on region. In seventeenth century Hamburg, for example, wet nurses were common and social critics complained that the possibility of a job as a wet nurse in a comfortable home encouraged immorality among the poor. By the eighteenth century, as it became common knowledge in the medical community that wet-nursed infants died in greater numbers than maternally breast-fed babies, eighteenth-century pediatricians united in their condemnation of the practice. Their disapproval had no discernable impact, however. Hamburg, a city populated by ninety thousand at the time, continued to house almost five thousand wet nurses. Wet nurses lived in the homes of the rich, as well as the homes of merchants and artisans.

Only foundlings were sent to wet nurses in the countryside, where 22 percent of them died their first few weeks there.

By the late nineteenth century, German health officials, alarmed over the country's high infant mortality rate in comparison to other European countries, began to collect data on local infant feeding customs and their effects. All resulting studies showed a strong inverse relationship between maternal breast-feeding and infant mortality. This finding prompted an infant welfare movement whose varied facets all emphasized the benefits of maternal breast-feeding and the risks of feeding infants pap and wet-nursing babies. Infant welfare centers, whose primary purpose was to encourage mothers to breast-feed their own babies, burgeoned. Working mothers not only came to enjoy legal protection so they could stay home and nurse their babies, the state paid allowances to these mothers while they nursed their infants.

By 1937 sharp regional differences in infant feeding had all but disappeared and breast-feeding was becoming the norm in all areas of Germany. In Munich, for example, the percentage of breast-fed infants rose from 14 percent in 1877 to 91 percent in 1933. The resurgence in the initiation of breast-feeding, however, was accompanied by a reduction in the duration of breast-feeding. Women rarely breast-fed their babies beyond the twelve-week nursing allowance provided by the state.

Wet-Nursing in the United States

English colonists brought to colonial North America the practice of placing out babies to live with wet nurses. Puritans in particular criticized this custom, charging that mothers who did not nurse their children were merely "halfmothers." Yet the well-to-do mothers who customarily hired wet nurses did not seem significantly embarrassed by the accusation, as wet-nursing remained a conspicuous practice in the United States well into the early twentieth century.

By the nineteenth century the practice had changed somewhatwet nurses now lived in infants' homes rather than vice-versa. While previous living arrangements were directly responsible for a high death rate among wet-nursed infants, the new custom of the wet nurse living in the infant's home engendered a high death rate among wet nurses' own infants, as employers rarely permitted a wet nurse's baby to accompany her. These infants lived instead in foundling homes where caretakers fed them artificially. Their death rate exceeded 90 percent.

It is difficult to ascertain the precise extent of the use of wet nurses in the United States because, unlike Europe, no official records pertaining to wet nurses were ever kept. Instead, their use is evidenced by help-wanted ads in urban newspapers and bitter complaints about the inadequacy of wet nurses in women's and infant-care magazines. Both ads and letters pertaining to wet nurses appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines into the early twentieth century. There is also evidence in medical journals that urban pediatric societies and medical charities ran employment agencies for wet nurses through the 1910s.

In Gilded Age and Progressive-era America, when employers denigrated all household servants without compunction, wet nurses were among the most maligned of servants. While physicians argued that wet nurses were indispensable when it came to saving the lives of sick, artificially fed infants, including orphans, these same doctors and the women who employed wet nurses were united in their belief that wet nurses were ignorant, uncouth, unclean, unruly, and immoral. Yet the quandaries inherent in wet-nursing in the United States were far more difficult for wet nurses. In addition to being regarded with disdain, they were the ones forced to abandon their babies to institutional living and artificial food in return for unstable jobs. Employers customarily fired wet nurses after a few months of work due to the pervasive belief that the quality of their milk deteriorated over time.

Wet-nursing in the United States waned slowly in proportion to the growing safety of artificial food. The passage of laws governing the production and sale of cow's milk was instrumental in ending the practice by the 1920s.

Maternal and Infant Illness and Death

In all countries where the custom was common, wet-nursing arguably contributed to more ill health and death among mothers and babies than any other practice. Lactation is nature's way of spacing human pregnancies. The mothers who did not breast-feed, and instead hired other women to suckle their children, found themselves perpetually pregnant during their childbearing years, a fact that contributed to their own ill health and premature deaths. Wet-nursed infants who lived in wet nurses' homes died in much higher numbers than those infants who lived with their parents, whether they were maternally breast-fed or wet-nursed. When employers did hire wet nurses to live in their homes so they could supervise them, they customarily (particularly in the United States) forced wet nurses to board their infants elsewhere. As a result, death rates among these wet nurses' infants exceeded 90 percent. In these situations poor babies were effectively sacrificed so rich babies could live. The custom of employing a wet nurse debilitated many more mothers than breast-feeding would have and likely killed many more infants than it saved.

See also: Baby Farming; Infant Feeding.


Campbell, Linda. 1989. "Wet-Nurses in Early Modern England: Some Evidence from the Townshend Archive." Medical History 33: 360370.

Fildes, Valerie. 1988. Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell.

Golden, Janet. 1996. A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Kintner, Hallie J. 1985. "Trends and Regional Differences in Breastfeeding in Germany from 1871 to 1937." Journal of Family History 10 (summer): 163182.

Klaus, Alisa. 1993. Every Child a Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 18901920. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Knodel, John, and Etienne Van de Walle. 1967. "Breast Feeding, Fertility, and Infant Mortality: An Analysis of Some Early German Data." Population Studies 21: 109131.

Lehning, James R. 1982. "Family Life and Wetnursing in a French Village." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12: 645656.

Lindemann, Mary. 1981. "Love for Hire: The Regulation of the Wet-Nursing Business in Eighteenth-Century Hamburg." Journal of Family History 5 (winter): 379395.

McLaren, Dorothy. 1979. "Nature's Contraceptive: Wet-Nursing and Prolonged Lactation: The Case of Chesham, Buckinghamshire, 15781601." Medical History 23: 426441.

Sussman, George D. 1982. Selling Mothers' Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France 17151915. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Wolf, Jacqueline H. 2001. Don't Kill Your Baby: Public Health and the Decline of Breastfeeding in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Jacqueline H. Wolf


views updated Jun 08 2018

wet-nursing means breastfeeding an infant that is not one's biological offspring. For infants whose mothers cannot or will not suckle them, wet-nursing offers the greatest chance for survival and thus wet-nursing practices influence infant mortality rates and consequently the demographic and economic structure of societies. Wet-nursing customs reflect social arrangements and cultural values, illustrating how individuals, families, communities, and the state respond to the needs of infants and the biological capacities of women.

There are, essentially, four types of wet-nursing arrangements. Informal wet-nursing ranges from the occasional nursing of another woman's child to a private arrangement to suckle a baby whose mother is ailing or who has died. Such practices are hard to document and quantify, but undoubtedly informal wet-nursing was historically the most widespread and most common arrangement. In these cases women may have nursed their own babies along with the suckling. A second form of unpaid wet-nursing involved the use of slave women. Slaves suckled the offspring of patrician families at the height of the Roman Empire, and they suckled the children of plantation owners in the Americas in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Commercial wet nurses received remuneration from individual employers. There are references to these arrangements in the Code of Hammurabi, in the Biblical story of Exodus (where the daughter of Pharaoh sends her slave to hire a wet nurse for the baby Moses and ends up hiring the child's own mother — so not a true instance of wet-nursing), and in the Koran, which forbade marriage among individuals described as milk-kin. Evidence of commercial wet-nursing also appears in laws and contracts, as well as in medical books, and together these sources document the extensive employment of wet nurses in Europe in the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries — the heyday of the commercial wet nurse. In some cases, families sent their infants to live with wet nurses in the country — but sucklings might not survive if the wet nurses favoured their own babies. In other instances, wet nurses abandoned their own infant and went to live in the home of their employer — and it was then the wet nurses' infants who paid the highest price. As the heroine of George Moore's 1894 novel Esther Waters noted of wet nurses ‘It is our babies that die, it is life for a life.’

The fourth type of wet-nursing developed when the Church and the State employed wet nurses to suckle foundlings in institutions created for saving souls and lives. Often the women were not paid, but were themselves the recipients of charity or welfare — receiving room and board in return for their suckling of abandoned babies as well as their own offspring. Generally these arrangements failed, at least in terms of saving infant lives. The women coerced into wet-nursing had little incentive to save the lives of the sucklings they were forced to care for, and perhaps little ability to do so, given the harsh conditions under which they lived and the meagre diets they received.

The failures of congregate wet-nursing and the high cost of private commercial arrangements encouraged the search for alternatives. Artificial infant foods — most commonly milk from animals — had always been an alternative, but only in the nineteenth century did relatively safe, digestible products become widely marketed. The use of commercial infant formulae undermined the custom of wet-nursing in much of the developed world and later would lead to a decline of breast-feeding in the developing world. Other factors also played a role in this transition, among them changes in medical practice, evolving customs of infant care, the growth of non-domestic employment opportunities for women, and the recognition of the high mortality rate of the wet nurses' infants. Since the late twentieth century, infants in Western nations who have needed breast milk to survive and who could not obtain it from their mothers have received relief in the form of bottled human milk supplied by a milk bank, stocked by mothers who have had milk to spare. Wet-nursing as a form of service labour has been replaced by milk selling and/or milk donation, a transaction in which human milk has become a commodity.

Janet Golden


Fildes, V. (1988). Wet nursing: a history from antiquity to the present. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

See also breasts; infant feeding.