Many women ask questions like: what is a wet nurse, why would I need one and could I become one to help someone else? While wet nursing and cross nursing are not talked about a lot, it is still more popular than you might think.
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What is a Wet Nurse?
When a woman with ample supply of breast milk nurses a child that is not her own biological offspring, she’s considered a wet nurse. True wet nursing occurs when a baby is fed entirely by a woman other than his or her biological mother. When the baby is nursed at times by his or her biological mother and then by a wet nurse at other times, the practice is referred to as cross nursing.
While many babies were authentically wet nursed prior to the 20th century, most women are participating in a cross-nursing arrangement when they use the term “wet nursing” today. Even professionals working as wet nurses and mothers utilizing the services of a nurse fail to recognize the distinction between these terms in our modern age but there is a difference.
Why Is Wet Nursing Necessary?
Regardless of the terms used, there are many reasons that wet nursing remains a serious option for many mothers today. Busy working mothers want to devote their full attention to developing their careers, but they also understand the importance of their babies receiving nourishment from fresh human breast milk. When wet nursing is used properly, ambitious women can literally have it all. They’re incredibly successful outside of the home while providing natural nourishment for their babies.
There are also circumstances that may prevent a breastfeeding mom from nursing her baby, temporarily or permanently. One mother may need to take a medication that could harm her baby if transferred through her breast milk while another mother struggles to produce enough milk to satisfy her growing baby. Most moms want their babies to have the many benefits that come from breastfeeding, so they decide to work with a wet nurse rather than switching to baby formula and bottles.
It’s also becoming more common for same-sex couples and adoptive mothers to seek the services of a wet nurse. While these parents may not have the physical ability to nourish their babies through breastfeeding, they want their children to benefit from the advantages that come to breastfed babies. While bottles and formula are easier to arrange, wet nursing is always best for the baby.
Wet Nurse History
Historical documentation makes the case for active wet nursing throughout history. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings depicted circumstances that were likely wet nursing arrangements, and the Code of Hammurabi established rules to regulate the practice as early as 2250 BC. Prior to the 17th century, it was common for women of the upper classes to send their babies to lower-class women or rural peasants for the first two or three years of their life. The goal was to nourish the babies with wholesome breast milk without inconveniencing women of wealth.
Unfortunately, records kept in France during the 17th and 18th centuries prove that a large percentage of wet-nursed babies died early in life. This was believed to occur as a result of neglect by the wet nurses, but it’s likely that disease and other circumstances were at play. By the 18th century, wealthy women were hiring live-in wet nurses because they wanted to watch their nurses closely. Many poor women who had to work to survive continued to send their babies to outside wet nurses despite the risk of death.
The distrust and disrespect of wet nurses was replicated in the United States. Even though the practice was common in the wealthy class, there was a lot of controversy because many people believed that it was a woman’s duty to nurse her own babies. There was also a lot of ignorance in the 17th and 18th centuries, which created an unstable work environment for wet nurses. For instance, many people believed that the quality of a woman’s milk decreased over time, so wealthy women would fire their wet nurses and bring in someone new on a routine basis.
The story was a little different in England because wet nurses were regarded with great respect even in the 18th century. Families utilizing the services of a professional wet nurse were mostly appreciative, and the nurses were highly regarded in society. While there are many people who continue to value wet nursing today, there are also those who criticize the practice as unhealthy and dangerous. The main concern is that wet nursing puts babies at risk for diseases and illnesses that are sometimes transferred through breast milk, but many also argue that babies are confused when presented with another woman’s breast.
Learn more about the history of wet nursing here: //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684040/
How to Become a Wet Nurse
What motivates you to become a wet nurse? This is a critical question to answer before you start actively searching for employment opportunities. It’s important to carefully match your services to the right mother and baby because you’re going to work together in an intimate manner. When you can connect with the right mother and develop a trusting long-term relationship, the baby will benefit from bonding with his or her mother as well as one loving nurse.
While some wet nurses volunteer their services to friends based on need, most nurses go into this field because they want to make money doing something that is enjoyable and valuable. Many are young mothers themselves, and they want to contribute to the financial security of their families while remaining available to their own children. Others operate purely out of financial need. How you operate your wet nursing business and what clients you take on will depend largely on what you hope to gain from wet nursing.
In most cases, cross-nursing circumstances are intended when wet nursing is suggested today. Rather than serving as the only line of nourishment that a baby has, you’re most likely to provide breastfeeding services in addition to other childcare services. For instance, lactating nannies may now offer wet nursing as an additional service option. If you’re already established in the childcare business, then you may identify families in need of wet nursing services and negotiate private contracts directly.
If you can’t connect with people you know personally, there are other ways to become a professional wet nurse. You can place classified ads online, but you’re likely to be contacted by people who have less than sincere intentions. For instance, breastfeeding is a sexual fetish, so many women advertising their services online are propositioned by adults. You can still find legitimate clients willing to pay for your services by working with legitimate websites.
It’s important to thoroughly screen each applicant and make sure that they are a good fit to the services that you want to provide. Be prepared to answer questions about your own health, history, and lifestyle habits as well. Parents hiring wet nurses want to protect their children by doing a thorough screening of their own. They may even ask you to provide documented evidence that you don’t have any diseases that could impact their baby, and that includes sexually transmitted diseases.
If you simply need to express more milk than your baby can consume and you don’t want to throw it away, then consider donating to a milk bank. You won’t have to invest much of your time, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your milk is nourishing a baby somewhere in the world.
How to Hire a Wet Nurse
You have the choice of making a private arrangement with a healthy lactating mother who you know personally or finding a professional wet nurse online or through local resources. It’s important to find a woman who has a baby very close to the age of your own child because the composition of a mother’s milk changes as her baby grows. In order to receive proper nourishment, your baby needs milk produced for his or her state of development.
You may look at a wet nurse’s chubby, healthy baby and assume that her milk is clean and nourishing, but you don’t want to assume anything when the health of your baby is on the line. It’s important to thoroughly screen your wet nurse, even if you know her personally. La Leche League International suggests that you inquire about the following criteria before hiring a nurse:
- The nurse’s health. It’s best if the nurse isn’t taking prescription or over-the-counter medications and has a clean medical history. Even vitamins, herbs, and supplements can sometimes impact the health of a breastfeeding baby.
- Documentation proving that the wet nurse has been screened for common diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis. Screening for sexually transmitted disease is equally important.
- The nurse’s lifestyle should reflect the values of the biological mother. You don’t want to hire a nurse who smokes, consumes alcohol, or uses illegal drugs. Even excessive amounts of caffeine or artificial sweeteners can impact your baby’s health. If you consume only organic foods with all-natural ingredients, then you may want to find a wet nurse who lives according to those standards as well. Just note that such restrictions may limit the number of wet nurses available to you.
For complete recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics on hiring a wet nurse: //pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/45/5/838
Cross-Nursing As an Alternative
A wet or cross-nursing arrangement should feel comfortable and natural. Instead of trying to hire someone only to feed your baby as needed, you may look for a long-term care provider who happens to offer breastfeeding services. This is an ideal arrangement because your baby can grow comfortable and bond with his or her care provider while receiving nourishment from the same person.
Regardless of the arrangement that you create for your baby’s health, make sure that you’re clear on what you expect from your wet nurse. If you plan on breastfeeding your baby at times as well, then discuss how often you may rely on your nurse and under what circumstances she is to fill in for you. If you want to hire a nurse capable of providing all of your baby’s feeding needs, then make sure that the wet nurse is confident that she can produce an adequate milk supply to satisfy her own baby as well as yours.
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