A wet nurse is a woman who breastfeeds a baby that is not her own. As early as the fourteenth century bce there is documented evidence of wet nurses. The wet nurse to the Egyptian king Tutankhamen (1361–1352 bce) had a high social status and played an important role in the raising of the royal children. In England during the Victorian era, wet nurses were seen by the upper-class as fallen women who were immoral and often unmarried mothers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wet nursing was an employment option for young women in low socioeconomic groups. Often, wealthy upper-class families would hire live-in wet nurses to breastfeed their babies because they felt that it was beneath them to suckle a baby, or that it was spiritually wrong to do so. Some wet nurses replaced mothers who had died or were too ill to breastfeed. To ensure that there was sufficient milk for the upper-class infant, the wet nurse's own baby would be sent away to be nursed elsewhere. Many of these babies died because of neglect and malnutrition, which reflected poorly on the image of wet nurses.
Historically the wet nurse's duties often expanded to include caring for the baby. In recognition of this expanded role they were given the title of either nursemaids or nurses. The different job titles make the numbers of women employed as wet nurses in the past difficult to determine with any accuracy.
In England during the late nineteenth century women were told it was their duty to breastfeed their baby and not to employ a wet nurse. There were concerns about the baby's ability to bond with the maternal mother if a wet nurse was used and what effects this might have on the child later in life. It was also thought that wet nurses were more likely to have infections that could be transmitted to babies, endangering their lives. These concerns, coupled with the growing negative stigma of wet nurses and the increasing availability of artificial milk formulas, led to a decline in the employment of wet nurses.
In the twenty-first century wet nurses are uncommon in first-world countries. Attempts to reintroduce them have been rejected by the public. Wet nursing still exists in developing countries where formula milk is less accessible and maternal illness, injury, and death occur at higher rates because of inadequate maternal health care services. In some instances, without wet nurses, who are often family members or friends, babies would die from dehydration and malnutrition at greater rates than are already reported in developing countries.
Breast milk is the ideal feeding option for newborn babies up to the age of at least six months. In the twenty-first century milk banks (a place where donated breast milk is stored) provide women with access to breast milk without the negative social stigma that is associated with wet nursing. Where this option is not available and the mother wishes to use breast milk, the use of a wet nurse is a viable option.
Golden, Janet. 2001. A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Gribble, Karleen. 2005. "Breastfeeding of a Medically Fragile Foster Child." Journal of Human Lactation 21(1): 42-45.
Klimaszewski, Melisa. 2006. "Examining the Wet Nurse: Breasts, Power, and Penetration in Victorian England." Women's Studies 35(4): 323-346.